Have I Got A Solution For You!

Conferences. Every presenter and exhibitor have THE solution for whatever ails your organization. It might be a technology dashboard that presents all of the KPIs in graphic form, or a customer service training program that has “proven” to increase sales.

Those with products to sell have invested heavily in figuring out what problem you most likely have, and crafting a message that leaves you feeling hopeful that the problem can, indeed, be solved. You probably do have the problem they are solving. But does that solution address the root cause? That’s the critical question you have to ask before you buy.

What is “root cause?”

Per Wikipedia: “A root cause is an initiating cause of either a condition or a causal chain that leads to an outcome or effect of interest. Commonly, root cause is used to describe the depth in the causal chain where an intervention could reasonably be implemented to improve performance or prevent an undesirable outcome.

In plain English a “root cause” is a “cause” (harmful factor) that is “root” (deep, basic, fundamental, underlying, initial or the like).”

Until I joined a healthcare organization, I didn’t think much about the concept of root cause. I got just as excited about solutions I saw at conferences, like everyone else.

But the metaphor healthcare offered – treat the cause, not the symptom – resonated. It put meaningful context around experiences I had with solutions….sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.

Why wouldn’t they? Perhaps it didn’t work because they tried to solve the wrong problem. They treated the symptom, not the cause.

What might some of those conference-offered solutions miss?

Let me use an example I have observed time and again. Susan, an operational leader, comes back from a conference and raves about a spiffy new program that was showcased. The marketing of the program focused on improving customer satisfaction scores through training employees on a simple three-step process for helping the customer; Susan has been getting tremendous pressure to improve her team’s scores.

She tells the vendor that she is going to set up a demonstration when she returns to the office, and invite her HR Business Partner to attend. The very best thing about the program is that only takes a half day!

The low satisfaction scores are a symptom. Susan’s HR Business Partner, Sean, has an inkling that this program isn’t the answer but agrees to hear the vendor’s pitch. Sean is impressed with the quality of the program but is pretty sure it won’t make a significant impact on the satisfaction scores.

Let’s explore this

He begins a diagnostic process known as the “five whys.” “Susan, why do you think that this team’s scores are dropping?”

Susan replies, “We have had a rash of product defects, and my team doesn’t know how to work through the customer’s complaints, the Product Development team’s pushback, and resolve the customer’s problem.”

Sean asks again, “Why do you think this new program will address that concern?”

Susan responds that the three- step process provides a framework for her team to interact with the customer more effectively.

Let’s stop here and reflect. What is the real problem? Perhaps Susan’s team would benefit from a simple customer interaction process training, but will that solve the root cause of why the scores are dropping? If the product defects continue, there will be more than satisfaction scores dropping.

And the questions need to continue. What has Susan done to address the defects with Product Development? What has been their response? If they are not responsive, why hasn’t the problem been elevated? What needs to be done to fix the defects? Why has it not been done?

And so we come to a root cause – perhaps multiple root causes that have to be addressed, that no amount of training can address. We have poor quality control, unresponsive leadership, lack of effective communication across teams, and training will not solve any of that. Those issues have to be addressed at the root cause.

This path isn’t always easy

Treating the symptom and not the cause is expensive. Not only are you wasting money on a program that won’t solve the problem but the problem will continue into perpetuity if not addressed.

This isn’t to say that vendor solutions are not good, and maybe great, products. It is as long as you are clear that it is the right solution for the right problem.

The challenge is that going this route – avoiding the quick fix and searching for the root cause – takes time. We are all so strapped for time in this age of information and work overload, which we feel like we are treading water. Think of your search for a root cause as an investment. The time it takes to identify the right problem will save time and money.

You’re not done yet

Even if you invest the time and energy to identify the problem, and carefully seek and apply a good solution, you have to reflect. Did the solution fix the problem? If it did, great. If it didn’t, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned. The process of reflecting on what was done is the single most important way that organizations learn collectively. By reflecting, those involved learn from each other, open channels of communication and work together toward a common end.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. The most interesting challenges I’ve had was when the root cause wasn’t systemic. The root cause was an employee, manager, and at times an executive. Oh, the late night meetings we held to figure out how to convert such a troublesome root cause into a systemic problem. Then those morning meets under the radar with those people to give them a heads up that it’s just a matter of time before they are found out and fired.

    It’s not a coincidence that there is so much churn today.

    • Excellent point, Chris. I could say that it is systemic in one sense – that leadership doesn’t recognize leadership failures… Thanks for your comment.

  2. Isn’t it interesting that so often people try to fix issues by treating symptoms? Why? I guess part of the answer lies in the fact that the symptom is easy to see and often has a quick fix. Seldom though do those quick fixes end the problem as you note.

    My head hurts, I take an aspirin. Seldom do I wonder why my head hurts. Sinus problems? Stress? Pulled neck muscle? The end result is usually that the headache returns.

    Solving symptoms instead of root causes are often very costly in both business and personal arenas.

    • It sure is and I scratch my head when I see people going directly to a solution, and then to another, and another when the earlier ones don’t work. Thanks for your comment, Ken