Cause and Corrective Actions — Too late!

“Houston, we have a problem.” That statement, initiated by the astronauts on Apollo 13, galvanized people from all over the world into action. Their heroic actions resulted in the safe return of the astronauts.

Once the astronauts returned home, a different kind of problem-solving effort ensued – to figure out what happened and what to do so it would never happen again. This effort – known as “cause and corrective action” or (CCA) – is practiced with varying degrees of formality by most problem-solving entities. After all, who wants to deal with the same catastrophes over and over again?

While laudable and necessary, I propose that too much focus on CCA is misguided. The problem? The damage is already done! The short-term efforts to contain the immediate crisis and the long term efforts to correct the root cause are, in the parlance of Lean thinking, non-value added activities. That is, customers do not pay for mistakes which should have never occurred in the first place. If a restaurant burns the first steak you ordered, how many of you would pay for two steaks when presented the check?

As an alternative, consider “symptom and preventive action,” or SPA for short. The focus here is on crisis prevention rather than mitigation. It is a forward rather backward-looking measure.

An illustration. Imagine you were a coal miner in the 1800s. You knew there was sometimes gas in the mine shaft that killed miners without warning. This was, of course, catastrophic at every level. What was needed was a way to detect the presence of the noxious gas before it did damage to the miners. Someone recognized that the respiratory system of canaries was far more sensitive to what would later be identified as carbon monoxide than human respiratory systems. The miners began bringing caged canaries into the mine shafts with them. If the canary showed signs of respiratory distress, the miners would exit the mine shaft immediately.

What is your “symptom and preventive action” process? What are your “canaries in the coal mine?” What are the early warning signs, the “shots across the bow,” the, “Danger, Mr. Robinson” (for all of you “Lost in Space” aficionados) indicators of potential future problems?

While each person/department/function/organization’s canaries will need to be customized based on their specific situation, here are some generic ideas to jump start your thinking:

  • Ask, “What would a “little bit” wrong look like? Sound like?”
  • Introduce statistical process control to enable the distinction between “common cause variation,” (the “natural,” inherent variation found in every process), or “special cause variation,” (the “out of the ordinary,” “assignable cause” variation) from what is expected.
  • Introduce “rainbow charts.” These charts enable a process output to be plotted against known customer requirements. The chart itself is colored red outside the accepted specification limits, yellow at some pre-defined level just inside the specification limits, and green when the process output is deemed to be safely within the customer’s requirements.
  • Conduct periodic “pulse surveys” with your internal and/or external customers. These brief (3-5 questions) surveys can provide valuable insights as to how well you are meeting your customers’ present and anticipated needs.
  • “Look back – look forward.” You may be familiar with “frog and the boiling water” analogy. If a live frog is placed into a pot of already hot water, it will immediately jump out. However, if the same frog is put into a pot of water that is warmed gently, the frog will acclimate to it and eventually cook to death. Taking a longitudinal, over-time of performance may uncover subtle trends that indicate preventive action is needed.

Most organizations reward problem solvers. When and how does your organization reward its problem preventers?