Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Thousand Hacking At Branches for One Striking At Roots

One of my favorite sayings is by Henry David Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of [a problem] to one that is striking at its roots.”*

What does this have to do with organizational excellence? Quite a lot, I think. Far too often companies launch into campaigns that are aimed at the symptoms (lower accounts receivable; improve employee morale; reduce calls to the help line) rather than identifying the root causes for those problematic symptoms and correcting them. So, what is the result of these efforts? There may be a short term improvement as attention is paid, but soon organizational will and attention wane and the problem returns. When it gets bad enough, another campaign will be launched. Often these campaigns take the form of trying to implement the management fad of the moment.

Taiichi Ohno, considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System, which became Lean Manufacturing, famously taught that organizations ask “The Five Whys” to identify the root problem(s) [there are usually more than one], before taking action. Simplistically, Five Whys is a methodology in which one keeps asking why until a fundamental, actionable cause is identified. Once that cause is identified and solved, the symptom will disappear. While this methodology implies by its name that root causes can be identified by five whys, it may take fewer or greater to accurately discover the root cause.

An Ishikawa or Fishbone Diagram is a tool often used to trace problems back to their root causes. At the top of the page is an example of such a diagram. The headings of equipment, process, people, materials, environment, and management are typical but can be adjusted to fit any particular organization. On the other hand, these categories are also broad enough that they would, in fact, be applicable to one degree and in one form or another for most organizations.

At the head is the problem. The headings are the major areas for investigation. The larger “fishbones” represent the major groupings of problems. The smaller groupings are subsets or more detailed items under the larger categories. It is not my purpose here to provide exhaustive instruction about how Ishikawa diagrams are used; it is sufficient to reiterate that the tool is used to trace problems back to their root causes, often using the Five Why methodology.

Once the root causes are identified (again, there are usually more than one) they can be listed and examined for relative importance (how much impact they have on the undesired outcome); ease of mitigation (how hard it would be to solve this root cause); and cost of mitigation (actual and psychic/emotional/cultural costs). From this a priority list can be established and an action plan created.

Ohno is quoted as saying, "The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution.” As leaders of organizations take time to identify the true root causes and solve them, they will become one of the one in a thousand striking at the root rather than hacking at the branches. They will make lasting changes and help move their organizations towards excellence

*In the original quote, Thoreau wrote “evil” instead of my replacement of “a problem”. Although I believe both statements are true, my replacement moves it from the specific to the general.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!I think this is so true in business and in life in general! I think it is often easier to identify the issue and try to fix that rather than dig and try to identify the real cause of the issues. It makes a lot of sense that a more lasting solution would be to identify and address the cause of the issue than the issue itself!