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  • Susan Snedaker

Root, Trunk, Branch or Leaf?

We often discuss problems in terms of getting to the root of it or finding the root cause. Root cause analysis (referred to as RCA) is a common action after problems occur. In Lean, finding the root cause through A3 thinking or other methodologies, is at the core of process improvement.

But, what do you do if you know the root but cannot address it? Maybe you know the root cause, but you also know that's not something within your span of control or influence. Then what?

Sometimes when you're trying to resolve a problem, it can be helpful to think about a problem as if it were a tree. Leaves are the most numerous and the most pliable. Branches connect the leaves to the trunk. Smaller branches lead to bigger branches which always lead to the trunk. You can traverse the trunk top to bottom until you find the root. Spoiler alert - finding the root doesn't always help.

Leaves Are The Outermost Manifestation of the Problem

You're likely dealing with the leaves of the problem - those outermost manifestations that move and shake and tumble in the wind the most. They are most able to grab out attention and there are seemingly hundreds of them each day/week/month. You grab a handful or an armful only to find there are more where those came from. You get tired from the effort and you think you'll never fix the problem. If you're chasing leaves, you're right - you won't resolve anything.

Branches are Less Numerous Than Leaves and They Lead You to the Trunk

Branches hold the leaves, so that's the most logical next step in your troubleshooting journey. There are fewer branches than leaves, but that doesn't mean there aren't a LOT of branches to investigate. However, you usually know which branch is shaking, which is causing most of the leaves to fall off, so you have a starting point.

Work you way back from the place where most of your problems are occurring and find the next connecting point.

You now have a place where there is a consolidation of some kind. Let's look at this in practical business terms. Let's say you continue to get projects thrown at your team that seemingly come from left field, are not well thought out, have no lead time and add to an already overwhelming workload (sound familiar?). How can you tackle that problem? You might argue that you know the root cause and you might want to try to attack it there. Maybe you're right, but you lack the power, control, influence or seat at the table to impact that change. This is where finding the branch can help.

Using the above example, perhaps you decide that most of these last-minute, disruptive projects come through Department A. You know that Department A is not the initiator, but somewhat earlier in the cycle than your department. Maybe your next step is to meet with the leader of Department A. You mention that you've noticed a lot of unplanned projects and you're pretty sure Department A is impacted like you are. Once you gain confirmation, you can suggest you and Department A team up to work your way back to the trunk of the problem. You're on one branch, they're on another, when you both find intersection, you've reach the trunk of the problem.

Working with your counterpart in a collaborative fashion is good on many levels. It indicates you're not blaming Department A for your problems, you're acknowledging they are facing similar challenges. It indicates you're a problem-solver vs. a blame-thrower. It also gets you positive organizational visibility as you work to solve 'unsolvable' problems. All good.

Find the Trunk, Begin Working Toward the Root

Whether or not you're working with the leader of Department A, you find yourself at the trunk. The trunk is in the north-south orientation, not the east-west that the branches and leaves usually are. What does that mean? It means you may find you can go both up and down the trunk and find elements that impact the problem. The key is to start working toward the root, not the crown. The crown, like the leaves, are simply the highest, most visible manifestation of the problem. If you find yourself there, you may be able to learn a lot about what it looks like there, what the most visible aspects are, how high and wide the problem is - but you're not likely to be able to solve it from there, so climb down and head the other direction.

On the trunk, you can see many other branches that all contribute to the problem.

This is often useful as you continue to make progress in solving the problem. Again you're not going to completely solve the problem, but you may be able to eliminate one or more branch contributors to the problem. Solving the problem halfway may give you and your team some breathing room while you continue to work toward the root.

To extend the example above, let's say you and Department A determine that one of the major contributors to these last minute projects is Leader Z. He is in charge of a team responsible for construction of new locations. You and Department A leader change with Leader Z. You seek to understand his drivers, his constraints. You share with him your collective experiences and challenges. To brainstorm ways to solve these problems at this juncture - the connection between the trunk and the branches. Perhaps you agree to a joint planning meeting on a weekly or monthly basis. Perhaps you agree to implement a new process and monitor the impact.

Finding the Root Doesn't Guarantee Success

Unfortunately, though you may make progress with Leader Z, you may find that Leader Z is subject to the same variable behaviors of the organization that you are only on a different scale or in a different way. Solving the problem with Z doesn't fix the root cause. Perhaps it's an organizational problem that stems from political tension in the executive suite or by the lack of skills of one executives or by expansion of the company too rapidly. Whatever the root cause, it might be known, it might be interesting, but it might not be solvable (by you). But along they way, you have made incremental improvements, and that matters.

Making Incremental Improvements Matters

Hopefully this approach of working your way back through the tree gives you ideas on how to find intermediate solutions that will reduce work, reduce stress, and ultimately improve the environment for the team. The ultimate goal is not to be right but to be helpful, so if you can reduce the magnitude of a problem for your team, you've made a meaningful difference.

Best of luck.

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