Air Freshener Isn't Going to Help: Why Root Cause Matters

By April Resnick

Imagine you're in the kitchen, and you've just gotten a whiff of a bad smell -- a very bad smell. You sniff around, not sure where it's coming from. Maybe you spray some air freshener and crack a window, leave the room and hope it goes away. But when you come back, it's still there; maybe it's even gotten worse! You thought you could get away with masking the smell but alas, you have failed because you didn't take the time to figure out what was causing it. This same concept can be applied to any problem in any process; we'll look at how it can work for the personnel vetting process as we continue our Journey Mapping the Personnel Vetting Process blog series. In this post, we discuss how to identify the root cause of a problem, and then how to come up with ways to solve it. 

Step 4: Identify the root causes of problems

Step 5:  Envision moments of delight to improve experience 

Back to our stinky kitchen. It's clear that there is a bad smell but you're not sure of the source. How do you decide what to do next? You could just do the same thing you did last time there was a bad smell -- maybe you take out the trash, wipe the counter, or wash a few dishes that are sitting in the sink. But if the issue is a rotten piece of food that is lingering at the bottom of the disposal, you could hire a team of men to power wash the entire surface of your kitchen with no improvement. This is the value of root cause analysis. By working through a structured approach to diagnose the true cause of your problem, you can come to a precise solution (digging out the gunk and disposing of it in the outside garbage can) and minimize wasted time, money and resources.

Why do you need a "process" to do something that may seem intuitive? Because human beings are conditioned to make assumptions using our personal experiences -- it's an efficient way to live in the world. This inclination can interfere with our ability to come up with and consider a variety of possible reasons that a problem is occurring, which can result in efforts to mask the problem without understanding or addressing the source. Using a structured process also provides the benefit of bringing together a variety of viewpoints and experiences applied to the same problem.

Root Cause Analysis is a systematic process that Big Sky frequently leads client teams through to identify all possible independent variables/root causes (or X's) that trigger the the true problems they are trying to solve (Y's). Once the X's are all written out, they can be prioritized in various ways to begin to plan for improvement. A Fishbone Diagram is one of several methods we recommend for conducting a root cause analysis.  


Using the 5 Whys approach is a critical step for identifying and capturing the root cause of the problem in the Fishbone. By asking, “Why does this happen?” at least five times, you will eventually discover the root cause. 

Once we have prioritized the biggest root causes/X's in the process, it's time to think about possible ways of solving these problems and what the process could look like if those problems were eliminated. Brainstorming solutions can be exciting and productive but can also go bad -- fast -- if care is not taken to create a safe and trusting environment to generate and share ideas. Here are some best practices to take into consideration:

  • Ensure that all voices and diverse viewpoints are heard
  • Allow one person to speak at a time
  • Withhold judgement (there’s plenty of time for that later!)
  • Build on others’ ideas -- embrace the phrase, “Yes and...”
  • Use persona profiles as inspiration and a reminder of who you are designing solutions for

A great way to kick off a brainstorming session is to start with focused “How might we...” questions.  For example, within the personnel vetting process, how might we communicate the status of a security clearance to candidates? Possible solutions might include:

  • Generate timely automated email/text updates that alerts the candidate on where he or she stands in the process
  • Provide prospective milestone dates once the SF-86 is submitted
  • Develop and publish standardized FAQs about the personnel vetting process

By first slowing down to take the time to diagnose the root causes impacting the process and the customer experience, we can then speed up to design viable solutions that target pain points and exceed customer expectations.

Contact the Big Sky team today to start digging into your processes' problems and generating solutions. 

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