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Get to the bottom of the matter

Many organisational problems will better be solved if the underlying reason the problem exists could be identified.


Meetings, workshops and forums are conducted daily in organisations to try and solve problems. Solutions are found from these numerous discussions, yet the same issues will have to be discussed again when the said solutions fail to solve the initial underlying problem.

Yours truly would want to bring back a discussion that we hand a couple of years back in this column.

The underlying principle of understanding organisational systems is to acknowledge that an organisation is a system made up of underlying interacting systems.

Let us make that simpler by saying a system is a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.

When there is a problem in the system, solving the issue requires the aptitude to get to the root cause of a problem. Organisational resources could be wasted when trying to solve a problem, without first getting to the bottom of root-cause. Like I said this discussion is not new in this column; however, I felt the need to revisit the discussion because of its importance .

It is important for leaders to spend time getting to the root cause of a problem because it would help them understand what needs to be done to manage it.

Asking WHY is like digging below the surface to check why a tree is suddenly dying; analysing what is happening to the roots and going deeper until perhaps one discovers a worm that is gnawing at the roots.

A leader who spends time understanding the source of a problem can put in place better resources and methodologies for effectively and efficiently getting to a sustainable solution.

Many leaders often omit analysing the root cause when solving problems. Time constraints usually force leaders to deal with the irritating symptoms.

How many times are we quick to take a pain-killer if we have a headache? This is a typical of example of taking away the irritating symptom and not identifying the cause. Therefore, problems tend to recur if “solved” in this way.

Doctors, though well-trained at identifying the root causes of medical problems, would give you a pain-killer for a headache and tell you to come back if the medication does not help. They do not always have the time and resources to run numerous diagnosis tests to tell you what is really happening.

Dear good doctor, what if there is a real underlying health problem with the patient and the headache is just a casual symptom that will not recur; yet the problems would continue to fester unnoticed? The doctor is like a leader who believes that one should only devote extra time to persistent problems.

Enough respect to one of Zimbabwe’s greatest icons of all times. I guess leaders dance to the song without listening to the deeper meaning of the lyrics and how these may be pertinent to their own leadership responsibilities.

Here I am talking about Oliver Mtukudzi, or Tuku as many affectionately know him. In his hit song Handiro Dambudziko (loosely translated; that’s not the cause), from his album Nhava, he urges people to investigate the root cause of their problems and uses headaches or backaches as examples.

Respect to Tuku for the wise words, I build on those words and urge leaders trying to solve problems to ask WHY things are as they are.

When solving a problem, leaders should not ask WHY only once, not even just twice, but at least five times. The “5 WHY’s” method of root cause analysis was first used by the ever-innovative Japanese.

It was vehicle manufacturers Toyota who introduced it in their factories in an attempt to improve operations.

The method involves asking oneself WHY? every time they get an answer. Once the answer to the first WHY? is given, it becomes the basis on which to ask the next question, WHY? The process continues with the answer to each question leading to the next, WHY?

The process may look deceivingly simple, but it involves gathering and analysing information for one to get meaningful answers.

As the process gets much deeper with each question WHY? that is asked and answered, the focus moves away from the symptoms of the problem to the real underlying causal issues.

When you get to the point at which it becomes difficult to respond to the question, WHY? you have hopefully arrived closer to the root cause. It is recommended that you endeavour to get to the fifth WHY? question.

Some leaders stop asking the questions once they go past the first few WHYs, believing they would have arrived at the apparent cause.

I have heard leaders huffing and puffing with anger when they make statements such as, “I have lost count of how many times that person makes the same error”.
In some cases indifferent statements such as “it was just human error” have been proffered as the cause of a problem.

Such attitudes never get leaders to understand the real underlying causes. No matter how small problems may appear to be, the systemic failure that they may trigger them can bring a whole organisation down. It is therefore important to fully investigate the problem using a root cause methodology.

My mum used to tell me that it takes a small teaspoon to finish a huge bag of sugar, a small measure at a time, till all is gone.

Let us look at an example of the application of the “5 WHY” methodology to give you a practical feel of the process. We will take an example of a stationery department in a large commercial bank.

The imaginary problem we shall investigate is that of wrong stationery that has been delivered to a number of the bank’s branches on several occasions.

We ask the first WHY? Why did the problem occur? The first response could be; “ The individual in the stationery department who is responsible for packing has been making a mistake. He has been mixing stationery for retail banking branches, foreign exchange trading branches and the human capital department”.

We then ask the second WHY? Why did the individual make the mistake? The response could be “The individual is fairly new in the organisation, there has been no opportunity to train him.”

We then ask the Third Why; Why do we have a new person who has not been trained? The response in this instance is likely to be “The person who used to do the job had been in service for more than 30 years, took a voluntary retrenchment package. There was no time to pass the skills between the previous incumbent and the new individual as there was pressure to reduce staffing costs.

The instruction from the executive team was that no overlap of incumbents in a job was allowed. There is no checklist or procedure written down to guide the new individual. The previous incumbent did not need it because the procedures were in-the-blood”.

We ask the Fourth WHY; Why are there no written procedures? The response could be “During the past decade of economic meltdown we had no budgets for training or reviewing of procedures. The organisation had to survive and we focused on getting the job done at the minimal possible costs.”

We then ask the Fifth WHY; Why is this still the practice? To which we could get a response like, “We now get to the root cause of our problem, which turns out to be the now entrenched business practice of cutting down costs, at all costs”.

The business insight for the commercial bank executive team at the end of the “5 WHY’s” would be to review whether the “body-swapping” staffing method of retrenching older employees with higher vested remuneration packages and replacing them with new, relatively cheaper employees is beneficial to the organisation.

In case some leaders may have missed some learning at pre-school, I recently realised that those pre-school teachers do train kids in applying the root cause analysis methodology. Look at the following nursery rhyme?

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe a horse was lost,
For want of a horse a rider was lost,
For want of a rider an army was lost,
For want of an army a battle was lost,
For want of a battle a war was lost,
For want of a war a kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a little horse shoe nail

Do you know the root cause of the problem that you are currently trying to solve? Have you asked WHY enough?

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati

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