OLE DOSLAND, QA & Food Safety Consultant, Certified Instructional Designer/Professional Instructor

Part of our life in the quality assurance and food safety world is continuous improvement as a fundamental principle to solve problems. At times, we try to solve a problem only to become frustrated with partial success. Or a problem seems to have been corrected but repeats in a similar fashion. Many problems are hidden by contributing causes or symptoms making it difficult to reach the root cause. How do we identify the root cause of a problem? What tools are used? What is a practical solution?

One solution is the Ishikawa Diagram (the “fishbone diagram”) developed by Kaoru Ishikawa, who holds a Ph.D. in Engineering. Considered the father of a scientific analysis of the causes of problems in industrial processes, Ishikawa classified the causes of problems by categories having a profitability impact for Japanese companies such as Kawasaki. The popularity of Ishikawa’s model not only made him a famous quality guru, it enabled consumers to find more affordable and higher quality products in many industries, including food.

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Another method, the root cause analysis (RCA), was a way of life in the continuous improvement era of the last century. However, it seems to be underutilized today. RCA is an excellent process to identify causes of a problem while sorting ideas into helpful categories. It is an excellent improvement tool and practical solution for any problem-solving need.

Following are seven steps for structuring a problem-solving brainstorming session:

  1. Use the fishbone diagram approach when problem-solving thinking has become unproductive or stuck. Take a break and start fresh with this historically successful approach.
  2. Agree on a specific problem. Develop a problem statement — a concise description of the issue that needs to be addressed — and present it to the problem-solving team before they try to solve the problem. Be clear about the effect the problem is having, and don’t leap to easy solutions. A poorly written statement will likely lead to a poor brainstorming session.
  3. Brainstorm the major categories of causes of the problem. If this is difficult, use generic headings: Methods (procedures), Machines (equipment), People (workforce), Material, Measurement, and Environment.
  4. Ask: Why does this happen?
  5. Write each cause in the appropriate category branch.
  6. Use the five-why approach to develop a deeper level of cause responses in each related category. This technique is used in the analyze phase of Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology. You may ask the question more or fewer than five times before you find the specific issue related to a problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a problem with the question “Why?” As this is a center of the process, don’t get tired of asking why.
  7. Use a participant-prioritized voting technique such as top three root causes ranked 3, 2, and 1 to select the team’s top cause, identifying the root cause from the many underlying factors.

Additional tips include:

  • Keep the small group focused on causes of the specific problem. If another problem arises, separate the additional problem and have a brainstorming session for it later.
  • Use a large dry-erase board, leaving space to add more potential causes and detail.
  • Go around the group with one cause submitted each time. Continue doing rounds until ideas stop.
  • Establish a timeline from the normal situation until the problem occurs. This becomes helpful later.
  • Don't make “Who’s at fault” a part of the RCA process.

Although RCA has been around for many years, especially in quality assurance, it can be used for any problem-solving need, such as food safety, worker safety, customer complaints, product flaws, etc. RCA helps identify the what, how, and why something happened to help prevent a recurrence. Almost all businesses have some problem(s) to manage, and RCA is a practical problem-solving tool.

Being proficient with the use of this process can help almost anywhere for almost any problem, and lead to one being recognized as a problem solver, a go-to person, and a valuable associate with a unique skill.