A Business Technology Place

Root Cause Analysis Playbook

One of the staples of our Lean journey is a monthly root cause analysis (RCA) effort. The results of the team standard have surpassed my expectations, and I anticipate more potential positive results as we mature our approach. Our playbook is simple to execute, but requires disciplined execution and adherence to standard to recognize benefit and produce long term benefits.


Prerequisite Activities

  1. Train team members on the fundamentals and business reason to use RCA.
  2. Create team standards for documentation and frequency of RCA events.
  3. Establish place on visual management board to post active, completed, and future RCA documents.


  1. In the frequency designated by the team standard, determine the process,procedure, or result as the subject for the RCA.
  2. Decide who the point person is to manage the current RCA effort.
  3. Analyze and document
    1. Define the problem
    2. Determine why the problem happened.
    3. Determine a solution to prevent the problem from happening again.
  4. Post results to management board

Organizational Adhesive

  1. Review progress of active RCAs and results of completed RCAs during weekly team meetings.
  2. Use managers as both participants and assignment owners.
  3. Audit adherence to department standards and post results on team audit board.
  4. Use the management board to put placeholders for RCAs that will happen in the future.


A monthly cadence works well for our environment. It is frequent enough to keep problem solving active, but not so frequent to disrupt operational activities. We have found that RCAs which require more than a month of work to resolve should be classified as a project so we can keep the monthly cadence of RCA events.

The best part is living with the results and preventing problems from repeating. So far, we’ve not had any of the problem repeat that we’ve solved for in a RCA. I guess that’s the whole point.

Onward and Upward!

Bearing Fruit

During summer I turn into a recreational gardener hoping to grow a few vegetables for some delightful dinners. The first couple of summers I learned plants need plenty of sunlight and soil that drains well. This year I witnessed firsthand the effect of overcrowding in a garden plot. In my exuberance to increase my vegetable harvest, I overcrowded my plot at the community garden. A bell pepper plant was quickly overshadowed by squash, zucchini, and tomato plants. It stayed green, but did produce a single pepper from May through July. After an insect infestation killed the squash and zucchini I removed all the surrounding plants to leave the bell pepper plant alone with nothing else to compete for sunlight. The result from this single plant was over 35 peppers during August and September.

Like a gardener, I want to know how to get more fruit from my labor at work. I’m passionate about working smarter, finding efficiencies, and eliminating wasted outputs. My experience with the pepper plant this summer reminds me of load leveling work in our groups through prioritization. Too many plants competing for sunlight is analogous to an overload of active projects that force our people and equipment into constant context switching.  The resulting work output is delayed and often suffers more quality problems due to the lack of focus.

Our appetites for the amount of work we want to produce (collecting fruit) typically far exceed our ability to produce work (bearing fruit). Managers have to protect the capacity of people and equipment by releasing work when it can flow uninterrupted. Sometimes expanding capacity is an option, but other times, we need to work within the capacity boundaries that exist to produce work in a controlled and focused cadence.

Protect people and equipment so they can deliver more fruit.

Onward and upward!

Getting rid of the compliance mindset

To follow, or not to follow the rules.

Have you noticed following established rules is a paradox of behavior? In some situations, we admonish employees when they don’t follow procedures and rules. We create manuals of standard procedures for consistent experiences and output. But when someone doesn’t follow the standard procedure and the outcome is wrong, they are reminded of the procedure and possibly disciplined for it. Yet in other settings, we applaud and recognize those who think beyond the rules to discover and create new things. Apple’s Think Different campaign, Bill Gates dropping out of Harvard, and Michael Dell dropping out the University of Texas are examples of people who didn’t follow the prescribed rules of society, but were later recognized a genius path makers.

In the modern office, there are entire departments for compliance to enforce rules, regulations, and requirements. This translates into mounds of extra paperwork and procedures, much of which is non-value add for the customer. Being honest, I’ve always taken a deep breath when the word compliance was mentioned. Wait for it…….

The biggest problem with compliance is when we treat it as a box to check. If we stop to think about the rule or compliance control, we might just see possibilities to improve our service or organizational stability. But it’s tough to get beyond the mask of compliance rules.

Checking a box.

In our most recent employee survey results, there were many write-in responses that questioned the value of visual management boards. The employee was frustrated because they found the process of keeping information up-to-date on the board a waste of time. They saw the entire process as mere compliance. Someone was checking a box.

In another example, my department didn’t follow procedures to keep ticket history updated so the customer stayed informed. It’s an expected standard to update tickets in a timely manner. But when the act is seen as compliance and not understood as a value-add communication vehicle, team members don’t complete it. When a standard is interpreted as “checking a box” rather than understanding the ‘why’ then the activity is rarely done.  

Ask the right questions.

I find myself falling into the compliance trap when I audit our visual management board for department adherence to standards. It’s easy to get into the mindset of completing the task so I can mark the audit complete. I generate a score, publish it, and forget about it until the next week.

But that mindset misses the opportunity to work ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business. Reality is, if the team standards are set with a meaningful purpose to help eliminate waste and add value to the team then the compliance audit of the standards is the ‘check’ in a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. A proper audit (check) also creates countermeasures for action. A proper audit digs past the standard/compliance control. It seeks to understand the flow of work through the department. It identifies opportunities to improve.

I think of all this as a battle between compliance and engagement. If I want mere compliance then I’ll find limited value in the time spent auditing and continue to be consumed with non-compliant behaviors. If I ask ‘why’ and seek to understand the behaviors behind the compliance requirements then I may just find myself called a rule-breaker. If breaking the rules leads to continuous improvement then sign me-up.

Onward and Upward!


Lean Visual Management Board – What I’ve learned so far

Last year we started using a visual management board to get a better understanding of the flow of work in our IT department. The board, now in version 2 and completely electronic, has become the staple of our weekly team leader meetings. With continued attention and more maturity in lean thinking, I expect to continue evolution of the board contents.  There is no destination; Journey we must.

Each week, we “walk the board” during the team leader meeting. The content of the board is the agenda of the meeting. As we “walk” we make updates, we discuss topics, and we review results. The board has posted metrics and results, upcoming production changes, a calendar of key events , training plans, action plans, and links to standard operating procedure documents. It’s like a big dashboard but yet different because we are actively working the flow of department in the department instead of just viewing it. The board provides a tool for enacting the countermeasures and actions necessary to bring visual management to life.

Here’s a rough layout of the board contents which now reside on our Intranet start page:

Here are a few of the things we’ve learned by working the board each week:

  • Making work visual allows others see how their inputs and outputs affect overall flow of work.
  • We can measure progress of continuous improvement efforts by seeing how they affect key metrics.
  • We have a consistent approach for root cause problem solving. Learn together. Win together.
  • The board promotes the development of leaders that follow the company’s philosophy for work.

The visual management board is a conversation starter. It’s a visual representation of work. It’s a mission enabler.

Onward and upward!

Lean Thinking – Virtual Circles

Stand inside a circle.

During skills training last month, I viewed a series of videos from the Gemba Academy on the seven wastes in business and processes.  The material introduced the chalk circle teaching method of Taiichi Ohno. Draw a circle near an area to observe and stand in the circle for a pre-assigned time period. Record observations of the flow of work through the department. A key emphasis is placed on finding areas of waste. (Optional step, listen to “Stand by R.E.M.”- jk)

My mind started working a puzzle to define what this looks like in an office environment for Information Technology workers. The challenge is much of the work performed by IT uses inputs to-and-from a computer. Information and flow isn’t always physically visible. Combine this with employees that are not co-located and the observation circle for IT looks impossible.

But maybe I could create a virtual circle.

What’s at stake? A  way to find inefficient processes that produce waste and processes that don’t meet customer demand. A way to identify areas to reduce the time between customer request and solution delivery. This is important stuff!

My homework.

Now I have an action item to go draw a few virtual circles and stand in them. The first two areas I want to target are the software development process and service ticket flow.

  • Virtual Circle #1 – Software features on a Kanban board. We use swimlanes to map the status of software features and bugs. The board can show information on the movement of features through the process which may reveal wastes in the areas of overproduction, defects, and waiting.
  • Virtual Circle #2 – Ticket status in the HelpDesk system – Group requests according to status, entry date, or type to look for patterns and weaknesses. As with software development, this could show wastes in the areas of  waiting, overproduction, or unnecessary movement.

I have no doubt that I’ll find areas of waste. The aim of using a virtual circle is to turn the observations into actionable tasks for removing wastes.

If you have ideas for methods for finding wastes in an office environment let me know. This is a puzzle worth working.

Onward and upward!