Charles Kettering, famed inventor and head of research at General Motors, once said that “a problem well stated is a problem half solved.” Wise words indeed.

How important is the name of a problem when doing Root Cause Analysis

This is an interesting question and one that needs some thought. The name of a problem determines the focus of the investigation and, as a result, the eventual solution. After all, the goal of Root Cause Analysis is to prevent recurrence of the problem stated.

Say you give your problem the name “seized bearing”. If it’s named so, then your goal is to prevent that bearing from seizing up again, right? The whole focus of the investigation will be on the bearing and what caused it to seize.

What’s wrong with this?

Regarding bearing failure, nothing is wrong with this. It needs to be done. You need to understand why the bearing has failed so that future bearing failures can be controlled or eliminated.

Yet the specific name “seized bearing” will directly impact upon the corrective actions you take. Given its narrow focus, it may also impact upon the size and scale of a cause and effect chart; and most likely will not uncover all relevant cause and effect relationships.

Also, if you were to present the problem as “seized bearing” to your manager, they may dismiss the problem as inconsequential or insignificant. After all, bearings are used in many machines onsite and they seize all the time. Your manager may simply say, “Just fix it.”

You fix it. Problem solved. Or is it?

Looking beyond the fix

To prevent problems from recurring and to deliver real value in your maintenance strategy, you need to look beyond the problem and ask yourself what the problem really means to the organization.

Ask yourself, “So what?” Using the example above, you’d ask, “So what if the bearing seizes?”

This simple “So what?” question can lead to some insightful answers. For example, a seized bearing could cause the drive pulley to go offline and the conveyor to stop. This, in turn, could mean that you can’t get feed to the crusher – which means that production halts for however long it takes to get the bearing fixed and the conveyor back online. In this case, let’s say it causes 10,000 tonnes of lost production.

When you look at it this way, the trigger to do an investigation would be “Losing 10,000 tonnes of production”. It’s not just about a bearing that seizes. It’s the flow-on impact to the business. And it’s pretty much guaranteed that if you label your problem with a quantifiable impact like this, you’ll get the greatest buy-in and support for investigating and resolving the problem.

Asking “So what” questions will help you pin down the most significant outcome of an event; and helps to challenge any preconceived ideas as to what the problem really is.

So, what’s in a name?

Naming your problem is a crucial first step in getting the attention of stakeholders and garnering interest in the problem. You need management support and endorsement to pursue an investigation and reach effective outcomes. If the problem doesn’t have the right name, then this support may be difficult to achieve.

Remember that there should be a very strong correlation between the significance of a problem and its name. They are almost synonymous. To help you get there, challenge your group to look beyond the immediate problem (the seized bearing) and get them to articulate the significance of that seizure. Too often, people target an immediate failure without thinking about the bigger picture.

If you start your analysis on “Losing 10,000 tonnes of production”, will you still see the bearing failure? Yes, of course. It is a key cause of your lost production.

But by naming your analysis “Losing 10,000 tonnes of production”, you’re also opening the door to examine other contributors to this loss. For example, you could look at the length of downtime and the time to repair. You could also look at spare parts and work skills that are required to implement the repair.

One of the issues for large production losses is the length of time it takes to reinstate or repair what has failed. By looking at the bigger picture, you start to see all the other solutions – not just those related to the seized bearing. It means that if you can’t categorically prevent the recurrence of a failure, then perhaps you could mitigate the effects of that failure by fixing it in a much more timely manner.

It’s all about creating more possible solutions. The more you see, the more options that present themselves – so open your eyes and seek out that bigger picture. And then name your problem to match this broader perspective.

Root Cause Analysis Training

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