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Monday Morning Message on Lean – Getting to the Root Cause – August 16, 2010

August 16, 2010


“The best approach is to dig out and eliminate problems where they are assumed not to exist.” – Shigeo Shingo

One Sunday my wife asked me if I would help her pull weeds on the side of our house. I want to stay a happily married man so of course I said “Yes.” We move into this old house (built in1929) last fall and are still getting used to the idea of living in the suburbs. When you live in a big city, in a condo, you pay maintenance fees and someone else does all this stuff for you. Well, it is our turn to be good stewards of this little house and we want to treat it right.

Small tree stump right next to house foundation.

The previous owner did a great job with the interior of the house with painting and decorating, but my nice way to say it is that she didn’t pay as much attention to the outside. We had a service come out last fall and trim back some of the trees, especially one that was growing right next to the foundation by the fireplace.

So while we were weeding, I really got into it and sought to get the weeds out by their roots. Some of these things were really big and really deep. Then I came up to the spot where the tree used to be and there blasting out of the ground were new shoots. So I started to dig. I dug a little more. I had to start digging in all directions just to try to find out where the roots were. Then my epiphany hit, this is exactly like trying to get to the root cause of any problem.

Sometimes it is easy to get to the root and pull it out. Sometimes you thing you got the root, only to find that it is coming back six months later. Sometimes you have to do a little digging. Sometimes you have to do a lot. Sometimes where you started is completely different where you ended (like some of the vines I dug up that traveled several feet away). This is exactly what it’s like when we are trying to do problem solving and root cause analysis.

What is really easy to understand is that, yes, it takes longer to get to the real root, but if you don’t it will just come up later again. How much time to we have to spend getting to the root cause? From my experience, I had to dig far enough so that I knew it wouldn’t grow back again. If I dug any less, it would show up again. If I dug more, it would be a waste of time. The key is to know when to say when. 

Many organizations do not give their employees enough time, tools or training to let them truly get to the right level of root cause analysis. Take a lesson from digging in the weeds – don’t stop short or you’ll just see the problem again in the future and don’t dig too far or you’ll be wasting time, energy and effort. Find the right amount that you can move on to other areas and make them better.

Here are some resources that will help you with problem solving & A3, error-proofing (poka-yoke) and getting to the root cause. I hope this helps. – Tony

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