Solving symptoms instead of causes? [transcript]

Have we had issues that we fixed, only to have them come back again? Do we really correct a root cause to fix the problem, or are we just addressing inconvenient symptoms? Let’s talk about how we’re defining problems and causes after this brief introduction.

Hello and welcome to Quality During Design, the place to use quality thinking to create products others love for less. My name is Dianna. I’m a senior level quality professional and engineer with over 20 years of experience in manufacturing and design. Listen in and then join the conversation at QualityDuringDesign.com.

How we describe and approach the issues we need to solve can affect how we react. We could be under pressure to get something fixed, quick. Maybe a production line is down, or a customer really wants an answer or resolution. Some people call these ‘fires’; we’re constantly putting out fires only to have the same ones pop up over and over again. We know we’re supposed to be solving for root causes, but are we instead really solving symptoms? Are we celebrating the quick fix and then moving on without addressing the root of our issue?

We can think of issues as having three characteristics: one is a symptom, the second is the problem itself, and the third is the causes. There is a difference in these characteristics. If we recognize the mishaps of solving symptoms and know how to properly structure a problem statement and description, that will set us up to stop fighting the corporate fires and instead encourage us to be detectives to solving our cases once and for all.

First is recognizing the common mishaps of us solving symptoms instead of really getting to the cause. One mishap is jumping to conclusions. Do we find ourselves saying things like, “Yeah, I’ve seen that before. I think the cause is this.” But memories can be biased. We can’t rely on them as fact. We need to avoid the, “I believe,” “I think,” “I know,” statements. If we’re saying those things, chances are we’re jumping to conclusions-missing the real problem and not getting to the root cause. Another sign that we’re solving symptoms instead of problems and causes is when we celebrate the quick fix. Before we move on, we can ask ourselves these questions:

  • Did we learn something from the event?
  • Have we prevented it from happening again?
  • Are customers pleased?
  • Have we made a difference?
  • Has our behavior changed?

If “no” to any or all of these, we may be solving symptoms instead of causes. We need to pause and redirect our efforts.

A way that we can be confident that we’re moving towards solving the causes is taking a moment to clearly identify our problem. Our problems should describe a deviation and should be based on facts. There should be no conjecturing about causes or estimating causes. No causes should be part of how we describe the problem! We can be clear about our problem by diligently describing it in two steps: describing the problem statement (or what we want to solve) and having a problem description (describing what we want to investigate).

A problem statement needs to describe a performance gap or deviation. The easiest way to think about a problem statement is that it’s answering what is wrong with what. We’re driving our car and it’s starting to pull to the side and become difficult to steer. We pull it aside and park it and get out of the car to see what’s happening. We noticed that we have a flat tire. What is wrong with what? The tire is flat. That’s our problem statement. The symptom we’re experiencing is steering difficulty. This problem statement answers what we want to solve.

The other part of diligently describing our problem is its description, describing what we want to investigate. It only includes facts. Facts like timing (when it occurs), magnitude (how serious or expensive is it?), location (where do we observe it?), and any other description of physical evidence. A problem description can be used to help us design actions and invites learning opportunities for the team.

After we’ve described our problem as a statement and a description of the facts, then we can check with ourselves and our team: do we really have a problem? Having defined the problem, we can know who the process owner of the problem is and we can ask ourselves, “Does the process owner really have a problem? Is this problem keeping them up at night?” If they don’t think it’s a problem, then our project is going to lack support, so maybe we don’t have a problem. Are we capable of solving the problem? If we can’t solve the problem, then we may have to accept the status quo and move on. Is the solution unknown? Or do we have a solution that we can just employ? If we do have a solution, then let’s just implement it.

The third characteristic of our issue is our causes. The root cause is that cause that, if we fix it, it’ll stop future occurrences from happening. Our cause also relies on the facts and is actionable (we can do something about it). A rule of thumb for a root cause is this: it’s a root cause when we can switch it on and off without creating negative side effects.

Let’s talk a little more about the ways that we describing our issues as symptoms, problems, and causes. I was doing yard work, trimming my fruit trees, reaching up above me. And the next day I had a pain in my shoulder. The pain in my shoulder is the symptom to an issue that I had. Like most people, I jumped on WebMD and I thought, “Oh no, I’ve torn my rotator cuff!” But this is the wrong thing to do because I’m jumping to conclusions. I don’t have any facts based on my particular situation. But it’s something that occurs to other people. I take an ibuprofen and that alleviates my pain. But really, I’m just solving my symptoms. My pain is going to be coming back again. I go to the doctor and I explained that my shoulder is hurting and that I have a torn rotator cuff. But the doctor is smart enough to know that I’m jumping to conclusions and including causes in my problem statement. She asked me, “Well, what’s wrong with what?” And I say that I have pain and reduce mobility in my right shoulder. That’s what’s wrong with what: it’s my right shoulder and I have pain and reduced mobility. The doctor further asked me, “How did this happen?” or when did I begin to feel pain? I add more details and give her a problem description. My shoulder began to ache 2 hours after reaching high to push down on something. I cannot lift my arm above shoulder height because of too much pain. And my shoulder is aching constantly no matter what position I’m in. With the doctor’s wise counseling, I have given her a problem statement and a problem description and she can start to help me figure out what’s wrong with my shoulder. I can’t say that the root cause of this problem is from me reaching high and doing activities and to just don’t do that. This line of thinking might help me not do it again, but it’s not going to help with getting rid of my immediate symptom. That would be a preventive control and something smart that I shouldn’t do again. To determine the root cause of my pain, the doctor needs to collect facts. So she performs a physical test testing my mobility and orders x-rays. From this, she’s determined that my tendons in my shoulder are inflamed. My rotator cuff is fine. She has investigated, collected factual data, and has gotten to the root cause of my problem. Now she can help me treat my root cause to eliminate my symptoms.


What’s today’s insight to action? We need to ensure we’re not just solving the symptoms of our larger issues. A step to do this is to clearly define the problem in two parts: its statement of what’s wrong with what, and a description of the problem that’s based on the facts of the situation. Then we’ll begin to understand the scope and details of the real issue and can start to investigate clauses to get to the root cause.


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