Ok, so you issued a nonconformity to your auditee or vendor and you are hoping that they will review the problem in such a manner that the current problem will be solved and similar problems will be prevented from happening again. You ask for a formal response and to your surprise, when you see the response, it is nothing more than a reinstatement of the problem and a promise that they will do better. You know they are working on a solution, but the response is truly lousy and looks as if mickey mouse wrote it. How do you tell your client or vendor politely that the response is not acceptable!
Excuses to problems are second nature
If you ever used the excuse “my dog ate my homework” when you were young, then you should know problems cannot be solved with excuses. But is in our nature to react to a problem with an excuse before accepting it or digging into what really caused it. Likewise in the work place, corrective actions to problems are plagued with mickey mouse root causes that are nothing more than excuses to avoid having to dig deeper into problems. Let’s review one example.
Problem: Customer order # 101, arrived 2 days late at its destination.
Sample of mickey mouse root causes to the problem:
- Customer order arrived late
- Operator Error
- Failure to meet requirements
- We shipped 20 orders to the customer this year, 1 late is not too bad
- 2 days late is only 1% of late deliveries
- Failure to follow procedures
- We overlooked customer requirements
- Employees not trained. If you look closely, the first three samples are just reinstatement of the problem. The next five actually look more like excuses. In essence neither one of these will help get to the bottom of the problem. Is almost like telling the doctor you have a headache and the doctor saying the problem is that you have a headache and he/she recommends you take Tylenol. Do you think your headache is the problem? Of course not, and neither is the “operator error”. So before you dismiss the nonconformity as lousy or irrelevant, you must accept the problem, stop the excuses and dig into the real root causes.
You’ll be surprised of what root cause analysis can uncover
One of the more complex human functions is that of problem solving. While machines and computers can perform complex calculations and routines, simple human functions such as walking among a crowd of people or driving in traffic, is still an area that computers cannot conquer. The average person however cannot sometimes differentiate symptoms from the actual root causes of the problems unless they are coached or trained to recognize those. The problem lies in that most organizations think that only a privilege few are capable of solving problems.
Let’s go back to the problem of Customer order # 101, arriving 2 days late at its destination. Let’s see some examples of actual root causes of the problem achieved through simple brainstorming:
- The quoting process is not well documented and is controlled by a seasoned employee, who holds large amount of insight knowledge, i.e. shipping to this customer requires additional time due to remote location. When the employee is not around, the process breaks as the process has not been documented and nobody else has been properly trained. Although this employee only takes vacation few times a year, when this happens, the errors multiply. A severe potential problem exists if that employee decides to leave
- There isn’t a program in place by which employees are trained upon hiring or upon transferring. There isn’t a program for succession planning. Although job descriptions exists, not all tasks have been determined per employee and not all employees have a backup. When an employee without a backup leaves, some tasks are just not performed. Knowledge is transferred from employee to employee haphazardly. There is no incentive to follow procedures.
- Employee performance is not measured, no performance objectives are in place. There are no specific customer measures such as complaints or on time delivery. Company measures overall sales and percentage of returns against total sales, but does not review at each specific return.
As you can see in the above sample root causes, if you opt for making excuses to the simple problem of a shipment being late, then you are killing your chance to find out if there are systemic issues, kind of like latent tsunamis waiting to happen.
Another problem: mickey mouse root cause analysis for mickey mouse nonconformities
Another problem is caused when you think the nonconformity is lousy and you don’t give it a priority. Hence you feel that such nonconformity can be simply answered from your desk. Furthermore you think that nobody else needs to participate, and being that the nonconformity is so ridiculous you just do it yourself and completely forgo inviting the people who participated in the process, i.e. quoting, sales, operations, shipping, etc. to the party.
In resolving that a nonconformity is lousy and does not deserve the appropriate root cause analysis, you have again missed your chance to find out the true root causes, the why this happened in the first place and the how are we going to prevent it from happening again.
But are we supposed to treat every single nonconformity, small or large, minor or major, lousy or important, with the same attention and perform root cause analysis to all of them?
The key is in the training
If you ask if every single nonconformity deserves the same level of root cause analysis, the answer is no. Not from you. Not from your star team. Not from your Lean team. But from the appropriate team.
You cannot dismiss a nonconformity and give it a mickey mouse root cause analysis just because you don’t have time or you feel is lousy. But just like doctors don’t take patients temperature or blood pressure anymore, you or your star team need not be the only ones to conduct root cause analysis. You must open up root cause analysis training doors to everyone in your organization. From the most senior executive to the operator on the floor.
If every problem, from small to large is looked at by employees in the sense of true root causes versus symptoms, how to prevent them vs. how to get them off my back, then problems will begin to be resolved for good. So everyone must be trained in root cause analysis techniques, everyone must participate and be given the chance and responsibility for certain problems. After all, a good root cause analysis exercise is best accomplished as a team.
So rather than answering a nonconformity vaguely, try assigning it to some of the people who participated in the process that created it or some of the least “used” personnel. You will be surprised to see how much information they discover. I have seen people who are not typical quality personnel, answering problems and bringing up a myriad of issues to follow through. Imagine if you give them the tools to distinguish root causes versus symptoms, you will truly begin to drive your organization to continual improvement.
So next time you have a nonconformity don’t fall on the same trap
If you find yourself answering a nonconformity with any of the mickey mouse root causes above, then ask yourself, can I do better?. Chances are, you probably can. But if you feel overwhelmed with so many other things going on around you, then try assigning it to another employee and see what they find. You will institute a true culture of continual improvement and avoid a culture of making excuses.
This article was published by Quality Digest on 04/07/2011.