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[KIT] How to get to the root cause of a problem.

Root Cause Analysis is a useful process for understanding and solving a problem. Identifying the basis of a particular problem often isn’t the most popular approach with senior agency executives, but a root-cause analysis is critical to ascertaining whether a particular issue requires a Band-Aid approach – or if it requires surgery. Here are 5 tip to get to the root cause of a problem.

1. Understand The Fundamental Issue

The first major step of any root-cause analysis is to identify exactly what problem or issue your agency is facing. If you don’t pinpoint the fundamental problem, you aren’t able to complete a root-cause analysis. You must understand the issue, and you must have a consensus on exactly how it manifests before you’re able to move forward in your analysis.

2. Dig Into Your Data And Number

After you’ve identified the fundamental issue your agency is facing, you need to collect data that proves the intensity of the problem and precisely how it happens. You don’t really understand the severity of a problem until you have the data to back up your conclusions. For example, if you’re dealing with a time-lagging intelligence process, you need to collect data on why it’s taking so long for intelligence reports to get to the appropriate team. This data might include system or email timestamps or surveys from end-users evaluating the timeliness of the reports. Before you advance in your root-cause analysis, you need an evidentiary basis for the initial problem.

3. Break Down Problems By Cause

With the problem identified and the data collected to substantiate it, you need to break down the problem into its various causes. The best way to isolate the root cause of a surface-level problem is to use a tool like a fishbone diagram, also known as an Ishikawa diagram. (An example of a fishbone diagram is included above.)

4. Analyze The Details Of Your Failures

Another effective tool for a root-cause analysis in your operational processes is a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) exercise. An FMEA helps you detect and determine the severity of problems and breakdowns in your process, including root causes and system-level effects.

Because of its systematic approach at finding failures in your processes, a FMEA exercise helps you discover even the smallest problems or breakdowns. Other benefits of a FMEA include:

  • Failure modes are listed and ranked according to the severity of their impact and their likelihood of occurrence.
  • Problems and failure points are identified early – possibly before they affect your schedule or budget in the long run.
  • A FMEA produces thorough documentation for compliance audits or supervisor approval.
  • A pre-established FMEA provides future criteria for testing new improvements or proposed process additions.

5. Prioritize Your Pinpointed Problems (And Their Costs)

With your root-cause analysis complete, you need to prioritize which problems should be addressed promptly and in what order. You can’t prioritize any solutions until you’ve ranked and prioritized the severity and impact of each problem you face, and without ordering problems and considering their costs, you may end up tackling the wrong issue.

However, you should also do more than just put your problem task list in the best order. You need to establish how much more of an issue one problem is versus another. Without this critical prioritization of problems, you’re prevented from achieving your goals and actually improving operations.

To sum up, figure out what negative events are occurring. Then, look at the complex systems around those problems, and identify key points of failure. Finally, determine solutions to address those key points, or root causes. 

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