Leaders Need To Get Into a “Root Cause” Mentality

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Every now and then I’ll catch myself engaging in a business behavior that is an obvious no-no. A classic example is when I spend the entire day responding to e-mails instead of doing the things that are most important for my company. This, I realize, is kind of like a teacher starting each day by standing in the middle of the classroom while her students shout questions at her all at once. Instead, she should arrive with a lesson plan and structure her day in a way that suits her classroom’s goals, making time for her students’ preferences along the way. Similarly, I should come into my day knowing what I want to accomplish, answering e-mail only at certain times that take into account my overarching priorities.

The fallacy that I’ve seen myself falling for lately goes something like this: members of my team come to me with problems and I respond by either solving the problems, advising them on how to solve the problems, or referring them to the correct person to help them. But really, I should be looking at the root cause of each problem and putting a process in place to remove that root – not constantly picking the leaves off the tree.

I was engaged in one such leaf-picking session recently when it hit me: As long as the same root problems remain, I can pick leaves all day and they’re just going to keep coming back.

It’s obvious to me now that every time a problem comes up, I need to ask myself to identify its root cause. By attacking the root, I will solve all the little future problems that would have arisen from that root as well. This lesson, which I call Root Cause Mentality, sounds rather obvious but is easily forgotten. It is something every CEO needs to master in order for their business to scale. But it’s also an essential concept for every manager, and indeed, every leader inside a company.

Now then, how do you find the root cause of a problem? The way I see it, you can answer the question “What is the root cause?” in 3 different ways:

Answer #1: A Person. Let’s say I’m consistently getting back web design work from my tech department that doesn’t match the work request. Thankfully, the work gets called out by either QA, a manager, or the Account Executive before it makes its way to the client. But still, a lot of time is wasted sending back work that should have never made its way out of the Web Design department. My first question should be “Who designed that?” My intent is not to embarrass anyone; it’s to find out what happened. There are many reasons someone might be making this kind of mistake: lack of management, lack of training, personal issues, health problems, a conflict with the company culture, or just a simple misunderstanding. Most of those issues are solvable, or simply require some patience. But it’s also possible the person missing the mark is not a good fit for the position anymore. Whatever the case is, once we address the root cause of the issue – the person who is underdelivering – everyone who depends on that person will have a better day each day and the company will grow stronger as a result.

Answer #2: A Process. My Editor-in-Chief came to me recently to say that she and the editors are often confronted with SEO issues about which there are competing schools of thought. She had scoured our training manuals, read through my blog posts, and still wasn’t quite sure how to answer the editors’ questions on several topics. This is a situation where I was tempted to say “Oh, well tell me the questions and I’ll answer them right now.” But I caught myself. Instead, we decided to schedule a training covering all the knowledge gaps that the editors could think of; to record that training for future members of the department; and to update our training manual to reflect our clearest understanding of each of the subjects covered. In other words, the root cause of the problem was that our training and education processes needed improvement. By improving those processes, we’re enabling our editors to be better informed, make fewer mistakes, and be more productive.

Answer #3: The Culture. If, heaven forbid, I began to notice some really big problems, such as a high number of clients feeling dissatisfied with our work; or perpetual lateness for meetings across the board; or a creeping malaise amongst the team; it would be incumbent on me to do more than zap the symptoms. When a cultural root cause shows its face, as the CEO, it’s time to look at yourself. I’d be asking what kind of culture I’ve propagated lately. Have I been too lax? Too focused on results, such that I’ve neglected the humanity of my team members? Too out of touch? Whatever the reason is, it would be on me to change my perspective.

While it can be tricky to identify the root cause in every situation – sometimes there are many, sometimes it’s both a person and a process, sometimes it’s difficult to perceive a cultural issue – I urge you to think deeper than the immediate problem at hand. If you do so, you’ll be finding yourself with less and less work, and more time to focus on the exciting, high level challenges that enable your company to grow and thrive.

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