This is the second article in a series of four where we will examine the following topics: 

There is a school of thought, particularly among more highly qualified engineering personnel, that problem solving and Root Cause Analysis is best performed by “experts” in their fields. This school of thought discounts the potential contribution of lesser qualified personnel in being able to identify and implement effective permanent solutions to maintenance and reliability problems.

I believe this viewpoint to be fundamentally flawed, for two main reasons.

First, if every problem that is to be solved requires the involvement of a few, highly skilled specialists, then these specialists quickly become the bottleneck in the problem solving process. Any individual is limited in terms of their capability to work on several projects simultaneously. In addition, these specialists frequently have other demands on their time, in addition to performing Root Cause analysis, and so the number of Root Cause Analysis projects that are in progress is severely limited by relying on only a few skilled personnel to perform these analyses.

Second, every individual brings their own knowledge, and biases, to the problem solving process. If the process is performed by a single individual, then the solutions invariably are coloured by the biases of the person performing the analysis. This is normal. For example, if problems were to be solved by a process engineer, then it is likely that the types of solutions recommended will tend to favour those that involve changes in process design or process parameters. If the problems were analysed by someone with an Information Technology background, then the solutions are likely to have something of an IT or systems flavour to them. These solutions may work, but there may be other, more cost-effective solutions that are overlooked because of the limitations of having only a single specialist work on developing the solutions.

Latino and Latino (4) consider that causes of problems can be divided into three categories:

  • Physical Causes are the tangible causes of failures – “the bearing seized”, for example.
  • Human Causes almost always trigger a physical cause of failure – these could be errors of commission (we did something we shouldn’t do) or omission (we didn’t do something we should have done) – “the bearing was not properly lubricated” would be an example of a human cause.
  • Latent Causes (or Organisational Causes) are the organisational systems that people used to make their decisions – “there is no system in place to ensure that the lubricator’s duties are performed when he is on annual leave”, for example.

Latino and Latino argue persuasively that the most effective, sustainable solutions are those that address the Latent Causes of problems. Yet we often see “experts” – especially Reliability Engineers – focus almost exclusively on addressing the Physical Causes of problems. This is not surprising – it is due to their specialist knowledge in this area, and the biases that this brings to the problem solving process.

This does not mean that there is no role in effective Root Cause Analysis processes for expert knowledge – far from it – but the most efficient way of making use of specialists is to involve them only in those problems which require their specialist expertise. This is generally a fairly small subset of all of the problems that exist to be solved within most organisations.

A far more effective way of ensuring that Root Cause Analysis is effectively implemented within organisations is by:

  • Empowering the workforce to solve problems within their area of operations, and
  • Encourage the use of team based problem-solving approaches for more complex problems.

“Empowerment” is one of those buzz phrases of the 1990s that seems to have fallen from grace in recent years. Let us be clear what empowerment is, and is not. Empowerment is the granting of authority to make decisions and take action for a predefined range of situations without prior approval. Empowerment is not the abrogation of responsibility by management for all decision-making.

Birren (5) states that effective empowerment rests on three basic concepts: direction, freedom and support. If one is removed, the other two lose their meaning and empowerment no longer exists.

  • Direction is the charge or mission, the statement that tells the workers what is needed. It includes definitions of desired outcomes, quality specifications, and enough other information to make it clear what is desired.
  • Freedom is the ability of the workers to do the job they have been given. It includes the latitude to make operational decisions within the boundaries of the charge, without being second-guessed or undercut by the managers.
  • Support is providing the resources necessary to do the job. It includes managers accepting work products and implementing decisions that are consistent with the direction provided, even if they disagree with the details.

Too often, in organisations, one or more of these three supporting concepts is missing, and so “empowerment” fails.

However, while true empowerment brings greater freedom on the part of those that are empowered, many are often reluctant to fully embrace this freedom. As stated by Mitstifer (6), “autonomy has not become a universally comfortable behaviour”. Mitstifer continues, “Our own dependency grows out of a reluctance to risk or to take responsibility for the future. We are conditioned from childhood to treat people (bosses or colleagues with more experience) with respect and attention. And dependency is increased by the fact that, realistically, our survival is often in someone else’s hands. But as organizations change to becoming more participative, more responsibility has not always been welcomed. In a sense, we keep ourselves in bondage to dependency.” So effective empowerment requires a high level of management supporting behaviours, particularly in those organisations that have had strongly hierarchical management structures and “top down” management decision-making styles.

Once again, this hints at the requirement for creation of an effective organisational environment for effective implementation of Root Cause Analysis processes – something we will discuss again in the last section of this article.

Team-based problem solving processes are generally the most effective way of solving most problems – especially those that are more complex (in other words, those problems that you are most likely to want to subject to some form of Root Cause Analysis in the first place). The advantages of team-based problem-solving processes include:

  • Those closest to the work know best how to perform and improve their jobs.
  • Application of a broader range of knowledge from multiple disciplines
  • Broader, more creative solutions to difficult problems.
  • Greater chance of risk-taking and challenge to the status quo
  • Teams tend to be more successful in implementing complex plans.
  • Higher level of ownership of results

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