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5 Tips To Get To The Root Of Your Root-Cause Analysis

By John Dillard

root-cause-analysis-tips-for-federal-agencies.jpgWhen new policies or issues are communicated down the chain of command at any defense or security agency, leaders too often scramble to fix the problem without truly analyzing whether it’s a surface-level problem or a root cause.

In fact, most Federal government process improvement projects are directed only at these surface-level problems and policy pains – not the root cause of the issue – and thus the process improvement efforts rarely succeed in the long term. Alternatively, agencies sometimes purchase an expensive software suite or bulky technology implementation to solve a process issue; but without addressing the root cause, these solutions seldom solve the issue at hand.

Instead, your defense or security agency needs to conduct an in-depth root-cause analysis. A thorough analysis of root causes might make the difference between a sustainable process improvement effort and the return of the same problem all over again. When you address the problem a second time, it typically requires a bigger investment of time and resources.

Identifying the basis of a particular problem often isn’t the most popular approach with senior agency executives, but a root-cause analysis is critical to ascertaining whether a particular issue requires a Band-Aid approach – or if it requires surgery.

Whether your operational problem is a budgetary issue, a quality problem, a time inefficiency or a new directive to implement, here are five tips and techniques to remember when you conduct the next root-cause analysis at your federal agency:

1. Understand The Fundamental Issue

The first major step of any root-cause analysis is to identify exactly what problem or issue your agency is facing. If you don’t pinpoint the fundamental problem, you aren’t able to complete a root-cause analysis. You must understand the issue, and you must have a consensus on exactly how it manifests before you’re able to move forward in your analysis.

2. Dig Into Your Data And Numbers

After you’ve identified the fundamental issue your agency is facing, you need to collect data that proves the intensity of the problem and precisely how it happens. You don’t really understand the severity of a problem until you have the data to back up your conclusions. For example, if you’re dealing with a time-lagging intelligence process, you need to collect data on why it’s taking so long for intelligence reports to get to the appropriate team. This data might include system or email timestamps or surveys from end-users evaluating the timeliness of the reports. Before you advance in your root-cause analysis, you need an evidentiary basis for the initial problem.

3. Break Down Problems By Cause

With the problem identified and the data collected to substantiate it, you need to break down the problem into its various causes. The best way to isolate the root cause of a surface-level problem is to use a tool like a fishbone diagram, also known as an Ishikawa diagram. (An example of a fishbone diagram is included above.)

In the “head” of the fishbone diagram, write down the surface-level problem that your defense or security agency is dealing with. Then, on each of the “vertebra,” write down one specific cause of that surface-level problem (repeating for as many causes as you’re able to identify).

Next, break down each vertebra-level cause into its own system of sub-bones that each identifies additional sub-causes. The idea is to identify as many root causes of the surface-level problem as possible and then to identify any patterns so you know which root causes to prioritize.

4. Analyze The Details Of Your Failures

Another effective tool for a root-cause analysis in your operational processes is a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) exercise. An FMEA helps you detect and determine the severity of problems and breakdowns in your process, including root causes and system-level effects.

Because of its systematic approach at finding failures in your processes, a FMEA exercise helps you discover even the smallest problems or breakdowns. Other benefits of a FMEA include:
  • Failure modes are listed and ranked according to the severity of their impact and their likelihood of occurrence.
  • Problems and failure points are identified early – possibly before they affect your schedule or budget in the long run.
  • A FMEA produces thorough documentation for compliance audits or supervisor approval.
  • A pre-established FMEA provides future criteria for testing new improvements or proposed process additions.

5. Prioritize Your Pinpointed Problems (And Their Costs)

With your root-cause analysis complete, you need to prioritize which problems should be addressed promptly and in what order. You can’t prioritize any solutions until you’ve ranked and prioritized the severity and impact of each problem you face, and without ordering problems and considering their costs, you may end up tackling the wrong issue.

However, you should also do more than just put your problem task list in the best order. You need to establish how much more of an issue one problem is versus another. Without this critical prioritization of problems, you’re prevented from achieving your goals and actually improving operations.

A root-cause analysis is only one set of tools to help you prioritize and rank the magnitude of problems at your defense or security agency, but investing the time into these practices helps you prioritize solutions more efficiently.

Need to improve operations at your defense or security agency with a limited schedule or budget? Click below to download this e-book from Big Sky Associates and discover how to make process improvement efforts more cost-effective for your federal agency.

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