CAUSE MAPPING 101
In detemining Root Cause Analysis, Good solutions address specific causes. And regardless of how complex or detailed, problems and the issues individuals encounter can be mapped – causally.
By Mark Galley
Just because we’ve had a meeting or written a report doesn’t mean we’ve fixed a problem. We analyze a problem by breaking it down to specific cause-and effect relationships. Three steps—identifying the problem, its causes and solutions—are part of any problem solving, whether it’s a five-step process or a 19-step process.
Solutions are connected to specific causes—and the process of cause mapping helps make those connections clear. It is a structured approach to solving problems based on facts and data with supporting evidence. It helps remove biases and opinions from the process, and it’s grounded in systems thinking.
Systems can be any combination of parts that function together as a whole. A safety incident is a systems issue, as is an equipment outage. It’s this systems view that keeps us from finger pointing. Everyone involved in solving the problem is part of the system.
It’s extremely difficult to communicate even simple systems issues verbally, yet this is how most problem-solving meetings are conducted. But with a visual map, people can process significantly more information. Cause mapping involves three steps: outline the issue, map the causes and find the solutions.
Outline the Issue
First, know that people see things differently. They may disagree about what the problem is, even if everyone is examining the same situation. In fact, people may be thinking the same answer on a systems issue and have completely different view about what the problem is.
For these reasons, cause mapping helps avoid subjectivity. Instead, four basic factors help keep everyone on the same page: What, when, where, and the impact to the overall goals of the organization.
The cause map doesn’t necessarily begin with responses to the “what” question. Instead, the impact to the overall goals shows what is important to the organization overall, and it’s where a cause map should start. Starting the map with goals not only helps problem solving concentrate on what is most important to the business, it also prevents the cause map from working with too narrow a focus.
Map the Causes
Mapping causes creates a visual dialogue within organizations. For illustration purposes, consider a worker carrying a box who trips on a barrier, falls and sprains his ankle. People will offer what they believe to be the cause of the problem. One may say that carrying a box was the cause, arguing that if a person wouldn’t have been carrying the boxes, he wouldn’t have sprained his ankle. Another person might disagree, explaining that stepping over the barrier was the cause. Yet another might say, “The real problem is the barrier path. We installed that barrier three months ago, creating a safety hazard.”
Think about these arguments. Each is telling the truth, which is why they are so willing to argue the point. They believe that they know the right answer—but, in reality, no one is right. This is not what is called a “right-answer issue.” This is a systems issue, and these three different points of view provide us with the causes needed to build an accurate evidence-based visual map.
Mistakes are made all the time in all organizations, and most aren’t intentional. People don’t try to make mistakes. Placing specific causes of errors on a cause map creates a document of the issue. The better organizations become at identifying the entire system of causes for any issue they encounter, the more effective they will become at preventing problems and meeting business goals.
Any one of the causes on the map can lead to a potential solution. We don’t have to solve all of the causes. Some causes obviously have greater impact than others, but this is precisely why mapping all of the causes is so important.
Find the Solutions
The final step, the solution, occurs inside the problem-solving session as well as outside it. During the session, look at each cause on the map and ask what can be done to control this specific cause, listing the possible solutions next to that cause. Do this without trying to solve the overall issue. Instead, focus on one cause at a time until you’ve gone through the entire map.Next, evaluate the solutions against the overall goals of the organization for the highest probability of success, and identify those things that are within everybody’s circle of influence.
Work done outside the session involves additional steps. First, we need a specific action plan with a person to perform each action item, along with someone to oversee the plan itself. The plan must verify the effectiveness of solutions over time. This may take one day for one solution, three years for another, depending on the nature of the problem. Next, document that information in a database to capture the information gained from the outline. The intent is to create a learning organization that doesn’t just document what they do but documents it effectively, so that the information can be used throughout the organization as needed.
A Simple, Effective Approach
Cause mapping is a simple, effective approach to solving problems. Regardless of how complex or detailed, the problems and issues people encounter can be mapped causally. The map here describes an organization reacting to a problem, but maps can also be used proactively for future problems that may occur.
It can also help with process implementation. Consider one process implemented in two different locations. One implementation goes poorly, the other goes well. There are benefits to cause-mapping both issues. The map starts with the question: Why did it go well? Then, what were the causes? Once known, a business can apply them to the next process implementation to ensure success.
Cause Maps and the Work Process
Cause maps serve as an effective complement to process maps that spell out specific steps in a process. The work process defines how the organization would like to conduct business every day.
When the process doesn’t produce the desired results, the first question should be, why? Enter the cause-mapping process, a tool that can start a cycle of continuous improvement. Find and define a problem using a process map, solve it with a cause map, and use those solutions to make specific changes to improve the work process. When another problem occurs, the cycle starts again.