What makes a good root cause analysis facilitator?

Chris Eckert, President

What makes people good at root cause analysis facilitation, and how do you find them?  I was recently asked these questions by a client who was about to kick off an RCA program.  

I’m glad he asked.  The reality is, the best choice is sometimes counterintuitive at first glance, so organizations often choose people who aren’t the best fit – particularly supervisors.  It seems to make sense to choose supervisors, doesn’t it?  After all, they typically oversee employees who were involved in part, or all, of the incident, and they are in the best position to get the right people in the room. 

However, here are some reasons why supervisors are not always the best choice:

  • Supervisors often have too many responsibilities that prevent them from focusing on the soft skills. Facilitators must be able to take a step back and consider the human side of conducting an RCA – they must be able to listen without prejudice. 
  • Supervisors often have preconceived notions about what caused the problem, and about human error or blame, so they’re not always the most objective or open to finding all causes.
  • Supervisors are typically pulled in many directions and often don’t have the time to do the follow-up work needed to integrate new information and evidence.
  • Supervisors may not ask all the questions that need to be asked, especially if they already have a theory about the problem.  
  • Many line employees will be reluctant to speak as openly with a supervisor who controls their paycheck.

Aside from the popular supervisor choice, here are some other common choices that don’t always turn out as hoped:

  • It seems natural to choose people who facilitate other training or initiatives.  But they are often too busy, or get pulled into special projects. Don’t hesitate to look beyond the same people to find others. (More on this later.)
  • Technical experts may not be the best choice for facilitators either; it’s often difficult for them to capture diverse or divergent expert opinions. Instead, they are great team participants because they can contribute their expertise freely without concern for capturing everyone’s input.
  • People with amiable work styles usually don’t make for good facilitators.  They tend to defer to group harmony at all cost, and that often doesn’t bring the needed results. Facilitators need to be comfortable, for instance, challenging a statement that may not be supportable with evidence or facts, or that may come from someone who seems to be more forceful or have more clout.
  • People with hard-driving work styles are generally not as good at facilitation either. They often default to making something  happen even at the expense of accuracy or completeness, which doesn’t necessarily help get a complete picture of the problem.  Needed solutions may be sub-optimal, or missing.

Now that we know what attributes do NOT make a good facilitator, what attributes DO?

  • Passion for problem solving—enjoyment of challenge.  
  • Logical thinking.
  • Keen listening to input from others.
  • Ability to assimilate information to form a bigger picture.
  • Self-awareness to recognize that they themselves do not have all the answers.  
  • Good people skills. Can work well and relate to line employees, leaders, suppliers and peers.  
  • Adaptable – can adjust approach to changing situations and needs.  

How do you go about finding those facilitators?  

  • Keep an open mind.  
  • Quiet/shy people are usually not thought of first when picking facilitators. However, they are usually good listeners, and often they are very logical thinkers whose capabilities may not be as well-known as more outgoing people.  You don’t have to be a skilled public speaker to be a good facilitator.  Often, it’s the opposite.
  • People with broad background often make good facilitators. If they have made many lateral moves or have been in different functions of the organization, they tend to be more open and have a broader perspective.
  • Look for inexperienced employees who show great potential to become leaders. They likely have more bandwidth and fresh energy than others who are spread too thin and worn down.  When it comes to RCA, inexperience is often a ‘plus’ because they’re not mired down in history or politics, and they don’t think they have all the answers already. RCA facilitation is a good opportunity for them to expand their knowledge of the business, build rapport, work with leaders and technical experts, better understand processes and technology, and be in visible positions. This means that you may send some less-experienced employees through RCA training than you otherwise might have considered, but you will see their potential emerge after training. They may need additional encouragement, coaching and training, but it will be worth the effort in the long run.
  • When considering the ranks of those who’ve already taken RCA training, look for people who are applying their RCA training and who build good charts.

Although it might take a little more thought and time to identify the right RCA facilitators, rather than jumping to the easy or typical choices, the pay-off will come in many ways, such as more effective problem elimination and prevention, improved problem-solving culture, new opportunities for certain employees, and distribution of work load.


Selecting a RCA facilitator

To select the right facilitator for a Root Cause Analysis is one of the key sucecs factors, as I presented at QA&Test in 2011 (see http://www.benlinders.com/2011/business-reason-for-root-cause-analysis/). The facilitator should have the right skills to lead the session, such as ask questions, give feedback, organize the information, get people involved and focus upon learning (not blaming).Other key succes factors are selecting problems that to be be analysed, and making the improvement visible. Together with the knowledge and skills of the people involved, these factors are crucial to make Root Cause Analysis efefctive, delivering business value.

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