Thursday, October 27, 2011

Getting to the Root of Problems, Part 2

One thing that fascinates me is how often problems persist in our business primarily because we simply fail to ask the right questions. This is a common shortcoming in our interactions with clients (for example, neglecting to ask about service expectations). The same oversight plagues our internal operations as well.

The most important question in both cases is, "Why?" When we understand the why we're in much better position to define the how. Yet we often shortcut the process, going to the how before we truly know the why behind a problem. That leads to a lot of ineffective solutions.

Last week I outlined the first steps in identifying the root cause of a problem. To clarify, a root cause is a factor that, once corrected, prevents the problem from recurring. Root cause analysis (RCA) can be broken down into three primary steps: (1) defining the problem, (2) determining why it happened, and (3) developing steps to prevent it from happening again.

In the previous post, I introduced the Fishbone Diagram, which can be a helpful tool in identifying probable causes of a problem. This step will likely produce several probable causes, but not all of those will qualify as root causes. This is an important distinction to make. Problem solving often falls short because the solution targets causes that are not root causes. In fact, the supposed causes may not be causes at all.

For example, consider the problem I suggested in the last post: PMs who fail to make the expected contribution to the firm's sales efforts. A couple of the supposed causes identified using the Fishbone Analysis were:
  • PMs don't have time due to the pressure to meet utilization goals. I often hear this reason given for poor sales efforts. But then I learn that these same individuals have actual utilization rates of 60-70%. So the question is, how are they using the other 30-40%? Cannot a portion of this be devoted to business development? This matter frequently turns out to be more an excuse than a cause.
  • PMs don't have the personality to sell. This is another common reason given that doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny. There is abundant research that disproves the notion that selling ability is attributed to certain personality types. On the contrary, studies indicate that people of all personality types can succeed at sales. It's a matter of desire, commitment, and fitting the approach to your strengths. Once again, this appears to be a convenient excuse, not a root cause.
So how do you get to the root cause? Dig deeper into to the question of why. A useful method for doing this is called the Five Whys. Here is the basic process:
  • Having identified a probable cause, ask the question: "Why did this happen?"
  • Then repeat the same question for whatever your answer is to the first question.
  • Continue to ask why for each answer until you can no longer answer the question. Experience shows that usually five times is adequate, but it may take more or fewer iterations. When you can go no further with this exercise, you've probably uncovered a root cause.
  • There may be more than one root cause. Each probable cause that you select from the Fishbone Analysis could potentially yield a different root cause. But more likely, you'll find them converging as you go through the Five Whys.
Now let's apply this approach to our hypothetical situation:
  • Why are our PMs not fulfilling their sales responsibilities? Because they don't have time given the pressure to be billable.
  • But the data don't back that up. Why are they saying they don't have time? Because they perceive that their other responsibilities are a higher priority.
  • But that's certainly not what we have communicated to them. Why do they not consider business development a high priority? Because we place more emphasis on other metrics. There are consequences related to making budgets or satisfying clients, but none really related to making the expected sales calls.
  • If business development is critical, then why aren't we giving appropriate priority to meeting those metrics? Because historically we've gotten by with the principals doing the bulk of the business development. That's no longer adequate.
What we've learned in this exercise is that the problem is largely cultural. It's not really a workload or billability issue as much as a matter of historic priorities. PMs in this firm have long been conditioned to think that their sales responsibilities were largely limited to keeping clients happy and supporting proposal efforts. The principals did the heavy lifting.

Now as market growth has stalled and principals have become more involved in other aspects of running the business, they're expecting PMs to do more. But they haven't adequately changed how they reinforce behaviors related to business development.

The RCA approach, of course, could lead to other root causes in this scenario. But in most cases, they will similarly prove to be behavioral in nature. In our business, few root causes are truly related to process or equipment. It's people. The secret to closing the gap between a problem and a solution usually comes down to understanding how to motivate people to do the right thing.

For more on implementing people-driven solutions, type "positive reinforcement" into the search bar on the right. But before you worry about defining solutions, make sure you're addressing the right root causes.

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