The Middle Manager

Surviving & Thriving as a Leader

Getting to the Bottom of a Problem

Everyone is occasionally faced with a perplexing problem.  This was really brought home for me recently when I was trying to fix my daughter’s wheelchair.  We have had problems off and on with one of the brakes on her chair for years.  We’ve had specialists look at it and they’d mess about with it and get it working for a little while.  The problem was that it wasn’t hitting the wheel properly.  When extended, one of the rivets was eating into the rubber of the tire, damaging it.

With the start of the new school year, my wife asked me to try and fix it yet again.  I took the brake apart, pulled it off the chair, maneuvered it around, and tried solution after solution with no luck – I simply could not get the brake to properly align with the wheel!  I even started giving thought to a torch so I could soften the steel enough to just bend it out of the way.  

Then I stopped and actually looked at it.  The right brake worked fine, was aligned properly, and functioned as designed.  Then I took a step back and saw that the right wheel was actually about a half-inch farther from the chair’s frame than the left wheel.  The root of the problem wasn’t that the brake was not working, it was that the wheel was not positioned correctly!  I took the wheel off and it was a simple adjustment to move the axle shaft out to a similar distance as the right side.  Now it works perfectly.

The question is, why didn’t any of the ‘specialists’ we had look at it over the years catch this problem?  Why didn’t I?  Because we were focused on the symptom, not the actual problem.

Isn’t that often the same type of thing we encounter when faced with problems at work?  It’s easy to get caught up in the symptoms of a problem rather than the actual root cause of the issue.  It leads to continuous ‘band-aids’ on the process but never results in an actual fix.

So how do we train ourselves to get to an actual root cause?  One of my favorite exercises is called the 5 Why’s.   Train yourself to think like a 3-year-old and ask ‘Why?”  In the case of my daughter’s wheelchair it would go something like this:

Why is the tire being damaged?
Because the brake is digging into the rubber.

Why is it digging into the rubber?
Because the brake is misaligned.

Why is the brake misaligned?
It’s too close to the wheel.

Why is it too close to the wheel?
The wheel is not properly installed.

Why is it not properly installed?
Because the bolt that holds the axle shaft needs to be adjusted. 

The same exercise can apply to almost any process problem, to help you get to the root cause.  It’s a very simple, but extremely valuable process improvement exercise.

(c) Can Stock Photo

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