Six Steps to Solving Problems Proactively

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Brian Hughes

I'm on a plane from Chicago back to Seattle.  Internet on the plane - amazing.  I was out for a just a single night so I could present at the UBM Canon ASQ Quality Expo at McCormick Place.  Just enough time for breakfast at my favorite diner (11 City Diner, 11th and Wabash) and a jumbo Chicago dog at the stand across from the Alaska Airlines gate.  The topic was "Solving Supply Chain Problems Proactively".  Apollo President Chris Eckert and I presented this same topic this year at the ASQ World Conference on Quality and Improvement in Pittsburgh, PA a few months ago.  I never miss a chance to go to Chicago - one of my favorite cities - even if it's only for a day.

We like to take the opportunity to show root cause analysis as a proactive tool.  Most people think that RCA is purely reactive, meaning that it's only any good once something bad has happened.  There's some truth to it - we generally apply RCA to events that have already occurred.  In that sense, one of the primary outcomes is to identify corrective actions.  Corrective actions fix known errors.  But what about preventive actions - those actions that help reduce the risk of potential future problems from occurring?  That would be a great proactive outcome of an RCA.  Yet many people don't do this - and I'm not sure why not.  It's not that difficult.  Let me see if I can walk you through six simple steps in a few hundred words...

Step One:  Identify KPI's
KPI's are Key Process Indices.  (FYI:  I'm not too proud to link to Wikipedia for this blog.  If you want to do more research, use the links at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.)  Every company has KPI's.  Examples include specification of tolerances, delivery times, scrap, downtime, and any other measurement of performance you can think of.  KPI's derive from goals and objectives.  Identify the primary KPI's for your business.  You'll need them in the next step.

Step Two:  Identify Problem Triggers
Problem triggers are significant deviations from your KPI's.  When a deviation is significant, it should trigger a root cause analysis.  You need to define these triggers, but be careful.  Most set their thresholds too low, which trigger more investigations than they are able to adequately complete.  This leads to suboptimal results.  Be conservative at first, and then tighten thresholds down once you are sure your team has the capability to keep up with the investigations they trigger.

Step Three:  Perform RCA
An organization needs to commit to a single RCA process, and they need to do it well.  If you aren't sure which process is best, give us a call... we'll help you sort it out.  But a single RCA methodology is crucial to success.  Everyone needs to speak the same language.  The notion that people can use whatever they want as long as it works for them is detrimental to the program.  Make a commitment!  Evaluate what's out there and commit to one process.  And if you're serious about it, you'll realize that the 5 Whys and Fishbone are completely outclassed by several modern RCA options, of which Apollo is one.  Things change for the better over time, and RCA is no different. 

Step Four:  Identify Systemic Risks
This is where the real proactive opportunities are found.  Most analyses will lead to systemic causes, but only if they go far enough.  These are causes that are actually part of the system itself.  They have been a cause of problems in the past, and will likely be a cause of problems in the future.  Finding and eliminating these causes is truly more "preventive" than "corrective".  And they can be found in almost any root cause analysis - as long as the investigator goes far enough and knows what to look for.  Common cause analysis is a great way to identify systemic risks.

Step Five:  Share with Others
Many companies simply don't take reporting seriously.  Think I'm wrong?  Pull some of your incident reports and review them critically.  Do they tell you what the problem was, when it happened, where it happened, and what the significance of the problem was?  Do they tell you the causes of the problem?  Do they contain a detailed cause summary?  Do they provide you with evidence for the causes?  And do they identify solutions that directly impact those causes?  These are just the basics, but if you've answered yes to all of them then your company stands apart from most.  We need to share what we've learned so that others can benefit from our efforts.  This leads to true organizational learning.

Step Six:  Scale Up!
Once you've proven that you can make this work on a smaller scale, it's not difficult to step it up a notch or two. 

That's 550 words including with headers.  I could probably shrink it, but we're landing soon... time to power down...

By Brian Hughes, vice president

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