A root cause analysis, often referred to as an RCA, is a collective term that describes a wide range of approaches, tools, and techniques used to uncover the cause of a problem. I have been using RCA’s for decades in order to drive to and document the origination of the event that lead to a negative outcome. Tracing a problem back to the root is a useful exercise; it allows us to understand and hopefully prevent the failure from reoccurring.
Failure can manifest itself in many ways but the definition is the same: what we expected to happen did not happen. Depending on the situation, this can be have minimal impact on you, your organization or others, or it can have a devastating impact. I have seen, time and time again, organizations that are so busy that they skip the hard work of digging for the root cause of missed expectations. This, in time, leads to increased failure and lack of accountability.
There are many great examples in history of avoiding the hard work of digging for the root cause. If we take time to learn from these we will see that making time to look back with the intent of improving the future is what great leaders do. Never look back to place blame; that is a futile exercise. Always look backwards so your forward view has more wisdom. The Enron scandal is a good lesson to study. The climax of American greed leads to the fall of a corporation that impacted many lives. The RCAs I have read claim that the underlying cause of Enron was the human capacity for deceit, for manipulation, and for betrayal. If we stopped at the surface it would be easy to think that the root cause was Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO. However, that suggests that if we removed Jeff from the equation, the Enron failure would not have occurred — I doubt that. I know RCA talk is not glamorous and if you are still reading at this point, I bet you are hoping I will have some great point to make. Well, I do.
How are your real-time RCA skills? Oh boy, you say, what is he talking about now? By real-time RCA skills, I am asking how well do you perform a rapid RCA in your mind, on the fly? What a Rapid Root Cause Analysis (RRCA) does is allows us to pause, think, mentally run through possible origins of the situation at hand, and determine a proper action. The RRCA technique is extremely useful in meetings when an expectation is not met.
It looks like this: a peer challenges your position in a way that is uncharacteristic of their normal behavior, or you receive an email that comes off as extremely unprofessional. Before you react, engage in a mental RRCA. What is the root cause of this person’s actions? What might be different today or with the subject being discussed that has resulted in a failure of communication or inability to reach an outcome? The mental RRCA allows us to process rather than react and it allows us to use deductive reasoning to improve our future relations with this person.
I find the RRCA to be a powerful tool in my personal life as well. When I take the time to get to the root of why my wife is feeling and reacting in a certain way, or why my daughter’s response does not meet my expectations, I always come out with a better reaction. I will close with this personal story. I am not tolerant of people who berate me in private, and especially not in public. When I was working as a Pediatric Intensive Care Nurse, I witnessed many angry cardiothoracic surgeons berate other nurses until they were in tears. Then five minutes later, the same surgeon and nurse would be talking as if the event had never taken place. There had been no form of an apology, so what was really occurring was a submission by the nurse to be treated that way. As an executive leader, I have witnessed the same behavior at this level. I have been most fortunate not to have had a leader who conducted themselves this way — if I did, and we could not work this out, I would be short-lived for that organization.
Now, I share all of that to say I did some soul searching to dig into the root cause of why this was such a big deal for me. Let’s face it, no one likes to be treated that way and then have the person act like it never occurred, but I am telling you, I have a grossly disproportionate reaction to this type of behavior. My RCA revealed that I am so bothered by this because of baggage I carry from my childhood. Without too much detail, I will just say that I lived the ‘berate and act like it never occurred’ experience way too many times as a child, and I carry that with me today.
I am not alone. We are not alone. The root cause of failures in business and the root cause of misaligned expectations in our personal life all stem from a root that cannot be seen by looking at the surface. We owe it to ourselves to take the time to do an RCA to make our organizations better and equally ourselves. So root on, my friends, and don’t be afraid to get a little dirty as you seek to improve your future. This is an act that can dramatically change your company’s culture.