Oct 11, 2009

Root cause -- for real

I pruned shrubs today--they'd gotten so scary looking I probably should have left it until after Halloween. It got me thinking about root cause analysis. My shrubs are junipers, and I like them to look feathery and natural, so you can't just swipe them with electric shears. The goal is thinning. Ideally you analyze the growth of a branch, find where a leader and a smaller younger shoot is coming from and cut the long one. My goal was to make the shrubs smaller but preserve their natural look.

To do that, you have to be able to see the overgrown problem areas, then find what to cut. In this case, the juniper needles were so dense that I couldn't follow the overgrown tip of a branch back to where I should cut it, like I would if I were pruning lilacs.

What I had to do is cut the bits I knew I wanted to subtract and gradually expose the branch they were coming from. When I cut that, I got rid of a lot excess greenery and shorter, younger branches hid the cut.

I realized what I was doing was like continuous improvement. Sometimes in the workplace you can see where there is a problem, but you can't see its cause. How often is it a case where you also find clutter, dirt, and debris there? So the first action is to remove everything that is not needed and is just obscuring the problem. Maybe you realize you need more 5S workplace organization work.

With the continuous improvement attitude, you keep coming back and taking more and more stuff away, or eliminating obvious problems, knowing you're looking for the root cause. Each action gets you closer. Then you find it, correct it, and you're done.

But are you really done? Like yard work, you discover more problems at the worksite as you solve each one. You see the weeds. You see the tree seedlings that have taken root over the summer. You know that if you don't get them now, you'll have real problems next year. You see the small bare spots in the lawn that ought to have some grass seed. Gee, what was that endlessly repeated commercial about feeding your lawn in the fall? Would that produce an improvement you'd value?

So if you see a problem, but the reason for it -- its root cause -- is eluding you, you might try to clip away at the effects until you find it. That's not the only, or even the best way to find root causes, but it might fit a situation you're struggling with right now.

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