Why manage symptoms, Deal with the root causes! Five questions to identify the real problem

Often when I hit a roadblock with an idea or a project, I realize, in hindsight that it’s because I had not done a sufficient job of discovering the real problem that I was supposed to solve. My bias for action often gets the better of me, and this may cause me to short circuit the problem analysis phase, and instead move directly on to designing a solution. The downside in doing so is that while the solution works and seemingly solves the problem, it can end up solving the symptoms rather than the actual problem, thus leaving the real problem either unsolved, or just partially solved.

This can become especially problematic, and expensive when the solution is a software that is designed to solve a specific business problem. Unfortunately, studies show that even today, over 60% of software projects fail either totally or partially. The top two reasons for such a high failure rate is lack of leadership support, and a wrong definition of project scope. In other words, the second most common reason what many projects fail, is that solution providers are either not solving, or just partially solving, the correct problem. Sounds familiar?

At Insight Consultants, we use our home-grown process, Radical Rooting™, to define the problems the client’s face. It is a 4-step process that is not just to build your business solution, but primarily to understand the influencing factors for success or the problem that the solution is expected to solve and ensure you have a handle on whether you get the value that you anticipate.

In one instance a client hired us to design and implement an Enterprise ERP to deal with an order fulfilment problem. A detailed analysis however revealed that the core problem lay not in the order fulfilment, but rather in how the order was captured during the sales process. Sales orders often contained incomplete description of the products, which led to either the order being held up in fulfilment while operations had sales go back and complete the order details, or being part shipped, or in some cases the wrong product being shipped. Once the correct problem was identified, we designed and implemented a sales order management system that ensured the orders were described accurately and comprehensively, thus automatically solving the client’s order fulfilment problem.

So how do we ensure that the projects we take on, solves the core problem, and not just the superficial symptoms?

Here are 5 key questions that we at Insight Consultants often use in the different levels of Radical Rooting™ process to help us go beneath the surface:

1. What are the symptoms, or the problem as stated by the user?

In order to go beneath the symptoms, the first step, is actually to know the problem at its highest level. Knowing the problem at the highest level not only gives us a starting point to drill down from, but it also serves as a plumb line against which we can compare the value of various solution options. At the end of the day, any solution is only as good as the number of symptoms it finally eliminates or reduces significantly. This “voice of customer” should, however, serve only as a starting point for the analysis, and rarely constitutes the actual problem that needs to be solved.

2. Why does this problem happen?

The second step to finding a permanent solution to the problem is to identify the root cause(s) for the problem. Almost always, there are just one or two primary causes to the problem. The key here is to look for drivers, rather than enabling factors that may provide a context for the problem, but does not directly cause the problem. Don’t go with just the superficial answer to this question, which in most cases only define the symptoms, and not the problem itself. Drilling down the answers by asking the “Why” question repeatedly (at least 3 to 5 times), ensures that the real root causes are identified

3. When does this problem occur?

Like the “Why” question, a study of the timing of the problem can often give meaningful insights. Does the problem happen immediately before or after another event? Does it occur at a certain time of day/ month or year? What is the environmental context in which the problem occurs? The best illustration of this is an old story of a problem faced by an automobile dealership whose customers complained about a certain model of a car. The complaint was that owners of the make of car who visited a local supermarket and purchased a tub of Vanilla flavoured ice cream ended up flooding their engines whereas for those who purchased any other flavours, their cars started without any problems. The whole problem seemed so illogical (since when do cars favour vanilla ice cream over any other flavour?) Further investigation revealed that the problem was the time taken to make the purchase. Since vanilla was the most popular flavour of ice cream, these tended to be stocked right at the beginning of the aisle, which meant that buyers who chose vanilla left the store much earlier than those who purchased any other flavour. Because the car did not cool enough to get rid of vapor lock, the car did not start.

4. Who are the stakeholders?

The objective of this question is to identify who all are affected by the problem in any way, either directly or indirectly. Stakeholders include those spend time or effort to manage or work around the problem, consumers of information that are affected by the problem, or those who are financially impacted by the problem. One of the principles that we at Insight Consultants follow when designing solutions, is to ensure that every stakeholder has a “win” in using the new system. Many solutions address the needs of the project sponsors effectively, but end up never getting used, or get used insufficiently because other stakeholders who need to make the solution work don’t buy in, since the new solution either adds to their workload, or doesn’t give them any benefit at all.

5. How is the problem currently managed?

The next step is to look at how the problem occurs, and how do users respond when faced with the problem. This question gives us insight into what works and what doesn’t. In our experience, the longer the user has been dealing with the problem, the more robust the work around. This may even cause a resistance to change, since the work around may now be seen as part of the “way we do things around here”. In such cases, how the change is managed will have an influence on the effectiveness of the final solution.

At Insight Consultants, we do a detailed analysis of each client’s problem that includes all of these 5 questions, and other that are more specific to the domain and function. This allows us to design solutions that gets accepted easier, used effectively and actually solves problems. Combined with a build, deploy and maintenance team that brings state of the art skills in Technology and Financial services, we give solutions that work fast, and work long. Contact Us to get a partner who walks away with you, even as you see visible business results.


Created by Insight Consultants

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