So You Think You've Got Issues -- Root Cause Analysis
In the Risk Mitigation posts: Part One and Part Two, I mentioned the difference between a risk (something that might happen) and an issue (something that's already happening). Both can apply to projects or ops (also known as 'day to day life'). However issues have to be handled differently than risks.
|A risk about to become an issue...|
First of all, risks can be mitigated or avoided or turned to some kind of benefit. Issues can only be solved. It's too late to avoid it and too late to soften the blow. And while you can try to find a bright side, it's usually also too late to set up a way to benefit. But before you can solve your problem, you need to have a clear picture of what it is and what really caused it.
In the corporate world, after something hits the fan, there's often some kind of post mortem meeting (charming name) that may include a root cause analysis. Root cause analysis is a group of different techniques that help people figure out what the origin of a problem really is so that they can a) solve it right and b) avoid it next time. If you don't get to the root of the problem you'll be a lot less likely to solve it. You'll either fix the symptoms without touching the cause or implement the entirely wrong solution or miss some key component. The problem will either continue or reoccur again.
The PMBOK lists a bunch of different root cause techniques and the internet is filled with them, but my favorite is the 5 whys. It works particularly well for teams of one (go team me) and is more intuitive and free form. It also lends itself to divination in interesting ways. The link goes to a succinct overview, but the gist is that in order to figure out the root cause of an issue, you need to keep asking why, digging deeper and deeper until you get to one or more sources. For whatever reason, five whys is often the correct number. You should at least go to five and go further if you need to.
Say there are three people: Alice, Bob, and Casey. Each of them has the same common problem: they don't have enough money. Or rather, they need more money than they have. Each of them does a 5 whys analysis.
Alice: I need more money than I have!
Why? Because my job doesn't pay me enough.
Why? Because I can't move up in the company.
Why? Because they want a degree and I don't have one.
Why? Because I don't have money to get one, duh!
Why? Because of this stupid dead end job!
Alice's problem is her job. Sure, a degree would be nice. But a different job is potentially the key to solving her problem. She might find a job that's not so stuck on a degree and will move her up now. She might find a job that reimburses for education. She might find the exact same job, but at a company that pays more to begin with. She might parlay her experience into a completely different job altogether. And if she looks and can't find a better job, she at least knows her next step is the college financial aid office.
Bob: I need more money than I have!
Why? Because I can't afford to pay my bills.
Why? Because my rent is ridiculous!
Why? Because we live in this posh neighborhood.
Why? Because we want our kids in a good school.
Why? Because they're smart and we want to ensure their future.
Bob's problem initially sounded like a housing issue, but it's really a school zone issue. He has some interesting choices to examine: can he find a cheaper place in the current boundary zone or a bigger place with a roommate? Can he earn more money to continue where he's at? Can he find an outlying neighborhood or district where the school quality to rent ratio is more sane (maybe increasing his commute to work)? Can he save enough money in a more modest neighborhood to pay for private school tuition or homeschool or to hire tutors? He hasn't identified a final solution, but now he's looking in the correct direction.
Casey: I need more money than I have!
Why? Because I'm always overdrawn and there are all these stupid fees.
Why? Because about three days after payday I'm completely broke.
Why? I don't even know... I got some food and some shoes and went out and paid the rent and suddenly my card is declined.
Why? Well, I forgot about that check I wrote for groceries at the end of last week and then a big tip for dinner and drinks and now it's like a ton of fees again.
Why? Oh, I have no idea!
Casey's issue is that she has no idea. No idea how much she's spending, no idea where her bank balance is. No idea what the bank is charging her. She may need more money, but until she gets her finances under control, she's not going to make much traction. She needs to start by doing a complete accounting of her finances: balancing her checkbook, talking to the bank about fees and costs, and creating the dreaded budget. If this sounds contemptuous, it's not. Many of us were in the same boat once upon a time. There was a point, when I was just starting out as an adult, when I wasn't much better than this. In fact, at one point I dropped my checking account entirely and operated only by cash for a few months. That'll get your accounting house in order quick.
Sounds simple, and these examples are pretty basic (at least from the outside). But there are much more challenging issues that people need to figure out. For example:
- I keep eating crap even though I know it's bad for me.
- I can't seem to trust other people.
- I want to be a better mother than I had, but I'm losing myself.
- I'm stuck in a loveless marriage that I hate.
Pretty basic, right? The cards indicate the areas you should be looking in order to figure out the root cause of the issue.
- Minor arcana cards indicate general advice or direction
- Court cards can be people in your life (now or in the past) or attitudes that you yourself have
- Major arcana point to foundational sources, including early formative experience
This is not a circular exercise in self-pity. Finding out that you can't trust people because your father abandoned you doesn't help you one bit in the present. The knowledge is only useful if you use it to find and apply the right solution to the issue. Sometimes the solution is obvious, but other times it's hard to know the right thing to do. But that's another topic for another day.