Saturday, March 08, 2008

How to Identify the Core Problem

Whenever we are in a situation that we believe should be improved, the first relevant question is, "What do we need to change?" The choice of the word 'need' rather than 'want' is deliberate, because the latter will direct us to the most obvious undesirable aspects of the situation - namely the many problems that manifest.

As our last article showed however, there are two drawbacks with a direct attack on the obvious problems. The first is that they are too many and may require more resources (even if this is just management time) than we might be able to deploy. The second is that the obvious problems are merely symptoms of deeper underlying causes.

It is the underlying cause - the core problem - that we need to change, if we must impact the system as a whole.

The first step is to get a list of Undesirable Effects. Undesirable Effects or UDEs are conditions that in themselves are negative from the point of view of the business as a whole or from the perspective of individual members or units. They are the things people complain about or that reflect or create poor performance. For example a UDE might be that revenues are declining, scrap increasing, customer complaints or lead time going up. For an individual in the organisation, we might have loss of commission, poor relations with peers or loss of prestige as UDEs.

The list should be broad enough to capture all stakeholders.

The next step is to select the most pressing UDEs (
five to ten) from this list and write them on movable cards or post-it notes using present tense wording. These are then inspected to determine if a cause effect relationship exists between any of the UDEs. Proposed causes are arranged below their corresponding effects. Cause and effect statements are connected using arrows.

Next we look at the cause statements and examine the broader initial list of UDEs to determine further cause effect.

All proposed cause-effect relationships must be verified by a set of logical tests - eight in all - known as the categories of legitimate reservations. These are Clarity, Existence, Causality, Cause Sufficiency, Additional Cause, Predicted Effects and Cause-Effect Reversal and Tautology.

Clarity: This determines that the UDE or other statement is clearly stated and reflects the meaning intended by the complainant.

Existence: A statement may be clear fail the existence test. This test examine whether the statement of the UDE is valid. To be valid it must have meaning in the experience of those to whom it is addressed.

"The cow jumped over the moon", a statement from a nursery rhyme, has no existence in most people's reality.

Causality: This test examines if a cause-effect relationship actually exists. That is we must be able to say that if the cause exists then the effect must exist.

Cause Sufficiency: This examines whether the cause(s) adduced are enough in themselves to create the observed effect. Otherwise, more causes must be found, which in combination with the already proposed ones, lead unavoidably to the observed effect.

For instance, saying that a spark led to a fire proposes an insufficient cause. Two other causes required in combination with the spark are the existence of combustible material and oxygen.

Additional Cause: This examines whether the effect could have resulted from a different independent cause of set of causes. The test here is to ask: If I eliminate the stated cause, is there any other circumstance under which I would observe the effect? If yes, then there is an additional cause.

Observed effect: The lady's temperature is slightly elevated
Proposed cause: She has an infection
Additional cause: She is pregnant

Cause-Effect Reversal: This test unravels the confusion between the cause and its evidence.

Predicted Effect: If the proposed cause-effect relationship exists, what other effects can we expect from the same cause? This is sometimes known as effect-cause-effect thinking. We observe an effect, for which we propose a cause. We then test our assumption by looking for other known effects of the cause.

Tautology: This refers to circular logic which offers the effect as the rationale for the cause.

Statement: The Super Eagles lost against
Ghana because they played poorly.
Challenge: How do you know they played poorly?
Rationale: Because they lost the game!

Using these logical tests we are able to create a rigorous cause-effect diagram reflecting the current reality of the system or organisation under consideration. As we go deeper into the causes, we find fewer and fewer causes. When we reach a cause from which we can trace a significant majority of the UDEs, we have found our core problem. We have found what we need to change.

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