We’ve all heard about or experienced the blame game. The customer is upset because a product doesn’t meet expectations. Once notified, the manufacturer apologizes, makes restoration, but blames a supplier for poor workmanship. Soon the blame game between manufacturer and supplier restricts the flow of meaningful information.

This situation can be handled more effectively through problem resolution. Root-cause analysis (RCA) is a powerful technique to help all interested parties truly understand a problem and pinpoint effective solutions without participating in the finger-pointing that tends to interfere with progress. 

There are several helpful approaches, but the following, in no particular order, are offered as fundamentals for handling problems:

Take the lead. Go beyond, not around, the customer service department’s efforts to ensure that a problem really gets solved. Take the lead to immediately schedule an RCA. There is a much better chance of getting to the bottom of an issue when memories are fresh, and evidence is readily available.

Assemble the right people. Bring together people from manufacturing, quality and other relevant disciplines so that everyone can share perspectives. Problems aren’t usually solved effectively when work is done in silos. 

Factions may prefer to speak privately so that they can complain about each other, but getting everything out in the open, even though uncomfortable, typically leads to mutual empathy and understanding. The eventual outcome is more effective with lasting solutions. 

Involve both customers and suppliers in the process. Many people are reluctant to involve the customer but who knows more about the problems first hand? Do you honestly think the customer is completely oblivious to what’s going on?

Involving customers provides the opportunity to obtain a clearer understanding from the user’s perspective. It also is the best way to demonstrate to the customer that the organization really cares about their issues.

Additionally, the participants establish relationships that will stimulate trust and empower them to anticipate and prevent future problems. To that end, they will tend to open the communication channel at the outset of an issue, rather than waiting until it becomes more serious. 

Use the tool that works. Many people worry too much about whether they are using the right tool. Pick the best one for the situation and follow the process. More important than the tool is the rigor and discipline that’s applied.

Remain focused. Be prepared for people to come to the initial meeting feeling that participation is a waste of time. Attempts to solve problems often degrades into blame or jumping to conclusions. Both outcomes result in ineffective or sub-optimal solutions so stick to the plan. Participants in an effective RCA effort become believers in the process.

Set the tone. At the onset, set the tone for a no-blame atmosphere to manage interaction between all participants. It can take real maturity to resist the ‘big stick approach.’ When participants, suppliers or otherwise, feel the objective is to solve the problem, they won’t focus on excuses. Instead, everyone will be fully committed to fixing the problem so improvements can be instituted. 

Be impersonal. When there’s a problem, be conscious of where you search for causes and solutions. If you start by looking at people as a significant contributor to a problem, the resolution invariably becomes personal. Conversely, if you’re looking at impersonal causes, the process will be more objective and productive. Recall that Drs. W. Edwards Deming, Joseph M. Juran, et al, indicated most problems are the result of the system, not the individual.

Document for all to see. Document or chart causes, effects, and evidence for everyone to see. A clearly visible documentation exercise not only helps people think comprehensively and requires participants to back up their hypothesis with evidence, it stimulates intelligent discussion rather than having participants argue among themselves.

Technical people, in particular, are hardwired to embrace causes that are documented with evidence; personal opinions thereby give way to logical, documented facts. Most people, when confronted with facts and data, understand and empathize with aspects outside their own silos, even including how the whole process or system interacts. 

Establish trust. Getting to and correcting the root cause of a problem isn’t about punishment, it’s about establishing trust. The end goal is to help both manufacturer and suppliers improve so that together a competitive advantage will be gained over the competition. When people feel they’re in a safe environment, they’re more comfortable taking ownership for their actions, including their mistakes, for the benefit of all concerned. 

In my next column, we will continue this discussion with a real-life example for constructive problem-solving.