In classical process improvement vernacular, root cause is the primary factor that may have sparked a chain of events resulting in the manifestation of a defect or problem. Lean Six Sigma and numerous other process improvement methodologies focus on identifying and correcting root cause. The thinking is that by addressing secondary and tertiary causes, a problem-solver will have only staved off defects temporarily or (to use a proverbial anecdote) swept the problem under the rug and that the only way to permanently solve a problem is by taking action against the factor or factors that caused the problem to begin with. The U.S. Center for Disease Control operates under this philosophy in order to keep us safe from disease which is the reason why the CDC will declare epidemics or pandemics and even in some cases impose quarantines until they can figure out how some new exotic disease first arrived in the United States. If we really think about it, we all can point to relatively innocuous aspects of our own personal lives that demonstrate our understanding that in order for problems to go away the root cause must be addressed. Why do we spend so much time pulling (or spraying) the weeds that grow in our front lawn instead of just mowing them over with the rest of the lawn? Why do we feel inclined (when we have the money) to pay more towards the balance of our credit cards than just the minimum payment that is due?
Once upon a time, I was hired by a company to lead one of their internal organizations that was, at the time, called the Quality Response Team. The team was responsible for responding to issues that had adversely affected the organization’s customers and the name of team was very telling with regard to the leadership’s approach to dealing with such issues. Needless to say, this team had their hands full and were forced to perform a sort of constant triage as the number and scale of quality issues continued to increase. In fact, it wasn’t until I came on board to lead the team, train them all on Lean Six Sigma, and dedicate half the team to root cause analysis (we still needed the other half to assist in the recovery from the most significant issues that were still occurring) that we began to see a reduction in the number and scale of quality issues across the board. I aptly renamed the two teams that I had created Permanent Corrective Action and Service Recovery.
Once upon another time, I went to work for another company that was having difficulty getting their Green Belt candidates to complete training and their Lean Six Sigma projects. Ironically, my boss at the time (a Division VP and General manager) had signed himself up as a Green Belt candidate, but he was “too busy” to attend training and he had tasked himself with leading a high-impact Lean Six Sigma project that had essentially died on the vine with all the others. Needless to say, very few of the VPs and Directors that reported to him had completed the training or their projects either and participation in the Lean Six Sigma program by any of the associates within their organizations was primarily viewed as extracurricular. I can recall numerous painful mind-numbing conversations with my boss regarding the root cause of the failure of his program. Not only was he himself setting the (detrimental) example for all levels of his organization to follow, but he also had not held the associates within his organization accountable. Each time I would bring these facts to his attention, he would shrug them off by saying, “That’s what I hired you for.”
True leadership cannot be delegated. Lean Six Sigma (or any other type of business process improvement, for that matter) is effectively driven from the top down. If you are a leader within your organization and you expect your organization to drink any type of business process improvement Kool-Aid that you yourself are not drinking you should expect your organization to fail…and you won’t have to look far to find the root cause of that failure.