Finding the Causes

18 July, 2013

In the last article, project managers were urged to study existing processes carefully and to plan their quality metrics before embarking on any process improvement initiative. In this piece, we show how Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® can delve into a given process and work out what exactly is causing hold-ups, defects and inefficiency. Most of the tools used will be familiar from your PMP® preparation days – being described in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) as the Seven Basic Quality Tools.

In preparing for the process improvement project, the project manager has obtained (or may have had to develop) a process map or flowchart. This details all the steps, decision points and rework loops that comprise the production process. S/he will also have a clear goal – to improve throughout, quality or consistency. So the process map needs to be analysed to zone in on the root cause of the issue in question. The best way for the Project Manager to approach this is to use Root Cause Analysis.

Root Cause Analysis is used to identify the origin of a problem. It uses a specific set of steps, with associated tools, to find the primary cause of the problem. This allows the Project Manager to determine what happened, why it happened and how to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. Root Cause Analysis assumes that systems and events are interrelated. An action in one area triggers an action in another, and another and so on. By tracing back these actions, the Project Manager can discover where the problem started and how it grew into the symptom the project is hoping to cure.

To maximise the effectiveness of Root Cause Analysis, the Project Manager needs to get everyone together – experts and front-line staff – who understands the situation. People who are most familiar with the problem can help lead you to a better understanding of the issues. Root Cause Analysis involves five steps:

  1. Define the problem. What do you see happening? What are the specific symptoms?
  2. Collect data. What proof do you have that the problem exists? How long has the problem existed? What is the impact of the problem? The Project Manager needs to analyse the situation fully before moving on to look at factors that contributed to the problem.
  3. Identify possible causal factors. What sequence of events leads to the problem? What conditions allow the problem to occur? What other problems surround the occurrence of the central problem? During this stage, the Project Manager needs to encourage the team to identify as many causal factors as possible. Too often in this exercise, the group identifies one or two factors and then stops, but that is not sufficient. With Root Cause Analysis, the Project Manager needs to remember that we do not want to treat the most obvious causes – we want to dig deeper. In this step, we can use the Ishakawa, or Fishbone diagram to illustrate our thoughts. Toyota’s Five Whys technique is also recommended.
  4. Identify the root cause. Why does the causal factor exist? What is the real reason(s) the problem occurred? The Project Manager will employ the same tools – Ishakawa diagrams and the Five Whys – as in step 3 to look at the roots of each factor.
  5. Recommend and implement solutions. What can you do to prevent the problem from happening again? How will the solution be implemented? Who will be responsible for it? What are the risks of implementing the solution?

During the description of Root Cause Analysis, the Ishakawa diagram was suggested. As one of the Seven Basic Quality Tools, any PMP® will be familiar with how it works. Developed by Kauro Ishakawa in 1968, these are also called Fishbone or Cause and Effect diagrams. These diagrams allow us to show causes for a particular effect. The causes are generally grouped into categories, such as:

  • Measurements: Data generated from the process that are used to evaluate its quality. Could the measurements themselves be faulty?
  • Materials: Those used to produce the final product.
  • Methods: How the process is performed and the specific requirements for doing it, such as policies, procedures, rules, regulations and laws.
  • Environment: The conditions, such as location, time, temperature and culture in which the process operates.
  • Manpower: Anyone involved in the process.
  • Machines: Any equipment, computers, tools, etc. required to accomplish the job.

These diagrams help the Project Manager to explore all possible causes of a problem, rather than just the most obvious one.

While this technique encourages a wider perspective when considering a problem, the Five Whys allows the problem to be explored in ever increasing detail. Created by Sakichi Toyoda in the 1970’s, this is an iterative approach to determining the underlying causes of a particular problem. It can be used in conjunction with the Ishakawa technique to explore how the different overall factors break down into more specific potential causes. It has been criticized because it is not repeatable – different investigators may go down different paths. There is also a danger of stopping at a symptom, rather than the actual underlying cause.

The best way to appreciate the Five Whys technique is to see an example. Essentially, all that happens is that the investigator (or Project Manager in this instance) repeatedly asks the question why? For instance:

  1. Why is our client unhappy? (Because we did not deliver our services when we said we would.)
  2. Why did we not meet the agreed-upon timeline or schedule for delivery? (The job took much longer than we thought it would.)
  3. Why did it take so much longer? (Because we under-estimated the complexity of the job.)
  4. Why did we under-estimate the complexity of the job? (Because we made a quick estimate and did not list the individual stages needed to complete the project.)
  5. Why did we not do this? (Because we were running behind on other projects.)

From this analysis, the Project Manager clearly needs to review the time estimation and specification procedures.

The other Seven Basic Quality Tools are helpful is supplying data is useful formats. Control charts, for instance, help the Project Manager see how consistent the process is and gives a feel for how well within tolerances it is. The Pareto chart is useful in determining which causes generate the most impact – guiding the Project Manager in how to prioritize the process improvement efforts. Similarly, Scatter Diagrams can show if there is any sort of correlation between two variables – a useful confirmation of the root cause analysis.

For a Project Manager tasked with improving a process, the primary directive must be not to make things worse. Therefore, it is vital for the Project Manager to understand what the status quo is. It is also vital to ensure that any steps taken to improve any aspect of the process are carefully considered. Does the step in the process we are planning to change actually lead to an undesired effect? Will our change actually lead to an improvement? Most importantly: will the change cause other undesired effects? For instance, an effort to improve throughput may lead to higher defect rates.

While raw data and irrefutable arguments are important for the Project Manager’s goals, sensitive stakeholder management is also required. The people who set up the original process need to feel part of the process improvement initiative and allowed to articulate their own concerns about inefficiencies in the process. It is very easy for a Project Manager to alienate vital contributors to the project by presenting the existing system as wildly inefficient and full of errors.

Velopi’s PMP® exam preparation courses are ideal for giving the experienced project manager a complete understanding of the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for effective project management. These courses are scheduled regularly in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. For more details, please visit our training page, or contact us directly.
By Velopi Seamus Collins

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