The Benefits Of A Root-Cause Analysis For Your Federal Defense Agency

By John Dillard

root cause analysisAt your federal defense agency, your biggest problems are usually presented in the form of top-down policies ordering you to fix a particular issue or process. But what if your current approach to fixing these problems and improving processes was wasting you millions of dollars and man-hours?

A more in-depth, root-cause analysis might make the difference between a successful operational process improvement or the return of the same problem all over again. If you have to address a problem more than once, it will likely require a bigger time and budget investment the second time around.

When new policies or issues are communicated down the chain of command at a federal agency, leaders too often scramble to fix the problem without really analyzing whether it’s a surface problem or a root cause. In fact, most process improvement projects are directed only at these surface problems and policy pains – not the root cause of the issue – and thus the process improvement efforts rarely work.

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

For example, when the U.S. Army was looking to improve its security clearance and adjudication process, the surface issues included slow processing speeds and cycle times, but after conducting a root-cause analysis, the case was clear: They needed to improve early quality inputs into the process. Once those improvements were made, the cycle times for the rest of the process collapsed considerably as a result. The Army realized significant savings on their time and budget all because they attacked the root cause and not just the surface problem.

Root-Cause Analysis Exercises & Tools

Conducting a root-cause analysis doesn’t have to be difficult if you use any of the following exercises and tools:

Five Whys:
Use this question-based approach to dig deeper and identify the ultimate basis for a problem. The idea is to ask “Why?” questions about a problem at least five times in order to identify a root cause.

To use the Army example from above, the Five Whys dialogue might go like this:
  1. “Why is the security clearance process taking so long?”
    Because we’re too understaffed to deal with this issue.

  2. “Why are we understaffed?”
    Because we have X level of volume and it takes Y hours to complete each case.

  3. “Why does it take so long for a person to complete each case?
    Because OPM sends a lot of them back to us for corrections.

  4. “Why does OPM send so many back?”
    Because we send the initial data to them with a 27% error rate.

  5. “Why do we have such a high error rate with initial input?”
    Because we don’t have any error-proofing measures in place in our submission.
    This is the root cause.

In this example, the initial process improvement push was to reduce cycle times, but only after asking enough “Why?” questions and probing deeper were we able to discover the root cause of the Army’s process.

Fishbone Diagram:
A fishbone diagram (also known as an Ishikawa diagram) is a root-cause analysis tool that thoroughly breaks down a particular process to help you identify the root cause of a surface-level problem.

In the “head” of the fishbone diagram, you write down the surface-level problem that your agency is dealing with. Then, on each of the “vertebrae,” you write down one specific cause of that surface-level problem (repeating for any many causes as you’re able to identify). Next, you 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. Download Big Sky's quick and dirty guide to using a Fishbone Diagram to identify root causes.

Root-Cause Analysis Key Benefits

So what are the most important benefits your agency gains from conducting a root-cause analysis? Here are just some of the ways identifying a root cause helps you tackle your biggest challenges:
  • Team Alignment: Root-cause analyses help line workers see the real issues for themselves, which sensitize the entire team to the challenge instead of just being told what to do by management.
  • Prioritization: Root-cause analyses help your agency sort out which problems need to be addressed first (and which problems should wait until later).
  • Resource efficiency: Your time and budget are scarce, and a root-cause analysis helps you use them for maximum impact and effectiveness.
  • Discovering value: A root-cause analysis not only uncovers problems, but it also unearths the effective practices that most benefit your agency.
  • Saves time: With root-cause analyses, you don’t spend months and months working on something that doesn’t need fixing. Instead, you only fix the most important issues.
  • Focus: Root-cause analyses keep you from fixing many problems simultaneously (which ultimately makes all of your improvements less effective). Rather, a root-cause analysis focuses your efforts on the 2-3 problems to tackle at a time, leaving the rest to be dealt with later.
The case for your agency is clear: Before you jump into solving a problem or implementing process improvement efforts, take a step back to look at the larger picture and conduct a root-cause analysis. When you identify the root cause of your problem or policy pain, executing process improvement is ultimately much more effective.

Digging into the root cause of your defense agency’s challenges often requires robust data analysis. Click below to download a free tip sheet from Big Sky Associates and conduct more effective root-cause analyses driven by deeper data analysis.

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