Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Do Managers Know what Root Cause Analysis Really Is?

When I am hired to teach Root Cause Analysis to an on-site group of people, one of the most common questions I hear is "does our management know what you're teaching us?" My generic answer is "no!" In my experience, most managers and executives think that Root Cause Analysis is something done by engineers and other technically-inclined people on either complex, long-term problems or the sudden disasters that all of us dread. They don't think it's necessary to attend the training themselves, since they don't think they'll be involved -- other than in a support role.

Twice in my career, however, I have had the "management team" sit through one of my 4-day classes. The first time this happened, about 5 years ago, it was a resounding success. The management team realized that Root Cause Analysis was much more than they imagined. They quickly got on-board and supported a refinery-wide effort.

The second time, however, was not as encouraging. In retrospect, I fear that this second "data-point" might be typical.

I knew I was in trouble after the 1st hour. Blank, glazed eyeballs stared me in the face. By lunchtime, I saw them huddled together discussing whether or not to cancel the training. At quitting time on the first day, the Human Relations manager approached me and said:

I am getting absolutely nothing out of this and will probably not come back tomorrow unless you can convince me that I should. I cannot see how I can possibly benefit from this, or how I could apply it in my world.

I looked at this person in disbelief and asked, "Didn't you say you were the HUMAN RELATIONS manager? You cannot see how you can relate to this???"

My disbelief stemmed from the fact that much of the first day was spent on the human-side of Root Cause Analysis, including how important it was to get everyone involved in "root cause thinking," but how difficult that would be in an environment of fear. I also tried to challenge their perception of Root Cause Analysis (as I do in all my classes), but as the saying goes:

Some people listen but do not hear.

How true! How true! Blogs like this are where people like me can express their thoughts for others to read and then make comments. I am expressing these particular thoughts because the experience greatly moved me. After all these years of trying to encourage the lower-level people to "learn from things that go wrong," I was confronted with THEIR reality, and it's worse than I thought:

Not only do most managers not know what Root Cause Analysis is, they don't WANT to know.
If the normal reaction to this seminar were the same (apathy and boredom), then I'd know that I was the problem. But I am continually encouraged and energized by class attendees -- especially attendees from the hourly ranks -- the hands-on folks who KNOW why things go wrong. They see this as a PRACTICAL way to make a REAL difference.
Why is there such a discrepancy between the way the hands-on folks see this subject (Root Cause analysis) and their managers? Why am I continually drawn towards supporting the PLIGHT of the hands-on folks -- in the face of borderline-oppressiveness from their managers?
Actually, the answer is obvious.
PS: Of course, I am not speaking here about ALL managers, or ALL organizations. There are some excellent examples out there.