Understanding Root Cause

by Patrick W. Ambrose

On Friday morning just before noon Wayne Borden left a downtown restaurant, walked to his car, got in and turned the key. Nothing happened. Wayne was furious, because he was now going to be late for an important meeting.

Business managers in many industries, and especially the automotive industry, are aware that they need to address the root causes of problems if they are to be fixed. They usually are forced to look at these issues after a customer or client has complained about something that has displeased them.

There is much discussion and focus today, particularly in the automotive parts manufacturing sector, on identification and resolution of the root cause of problems. The root cause is the underlying cause of the symptoms that were identified by the customer or originator of the concern. The important issue is that there are in fact three root causes that must be determined.

The Symptoms

The symptom is the actual event or situation that was identified as the problem. It is important to understand that while we often refer to this situation as the problem, it is in fact not the problem at all. The symptom identified by Wayne in the situation above is that his car didnt start.

First Root Cause

The first root cause is the one that has caused the symptom in the first place. What went wrong to make a customer think that there was a problem? In Johns case, the problem was actually that the battery cable was not connecting properly, and the car therefore wouldnt start. .

Cause #2

The second root cause is the cause of the problem. In Waynes situation it was determined that the second root cause was that the cable had been left loose during maintenance at Waynes local garage.

Root Cause #3

And now we must focus on root cause number three. How did this problem ever happen in the first place? This usually involves a procedure or process that is not properly followed thus allowing a problem to arise. Returning again to our example, we learn that the mechanic did not have, or did not follow a checklist of things that needed to be done before determining that the car work was finished. If he had, he would have realized the cable was loose. Finding and correcting this very deep rooted cause, would have prevented the whole situation from ever happening.

There could probably be a long discussion about whether all or any of these is The Root Cause and in fact it probably doesnt matter. What is important is that, if we want to address problems in such a way as to make them permanently go away, we must ensure that all three root cause listed above are fully understood and that corrective actions fully address all three.

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