Have you found the root cause yet?

We frequently ask or hear others ask that question. Root cause analysis (RCA) is an old subject and is familiar to many people. If your company is registered to a major global quality standard, you hear it very often and you most likely have contributed to a corrective action using it.

Many who use it are unaware of the concept’s larger context. Asked what root cause means, some typically respond with:

  • “It is what is really happening.”
  • “It is the one thing that causes everything else.”
  • “It’s the light switch. When you flip it, the lights go on.”

These explanations imply there is one specific thing that is the originator of the considered effects, and the origination is absolute, meaning unconditional and inevitable. This absolute origination is usually referred to as the root cause. The challenge to people is to know when and where to stop drilling down through the infinite layers of cause and effect and conclude they have reached a root cause. The clue resides in the typical business mind-set. It’s similar to selecting something that can yield a high return on investment. That is how most businesses make decisions.

One key to unlock the root cause is called the span-of-control or sphere-of-influence principle.

Span of Control

Many people have not thought much about the deeper meaning of root cause and, therefore, are not clear on when and where to stop searching for root causes. The so-called root causes are what people subjectively choose to serve in the role of origination. The task to pursue the root cause is really the task to decide when and where to terminate the chain of causation to generate high ROI.

Sphere of Influence

Similarly, if a cause is outside the sphere of influence (persuasion only), it’s a good indication you can stop drilling because working beyond that generates no returns. That’s not to say you’ll always give up in this case. The focus then must be shifted to expanding the influence boundaries to enclose the cause currently outside of your influence. In our experience, the sphere of influence is frequently the dominating factor in root cause selection.

Many people have not thought much about the deeper meaning of root cause and, therefore, are not clear on when and where to stop searching for root causes. The so-called root causes are what people subjectively choose to serve in the role of origination. The task to pursue the root cause is really the task to decide when and where to terminate the chain of cause and effect to generate a high return on investment.

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