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The Whiteboard: When problems arise, take time to find the root cause

Richard Randall - (Photo / Submitted)

Samsung’s recall of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone has turned into a fiasco. The company’s management has fallen victim to an age-old quality problem — the failure to properly identify the root cause of a defect.

When reports of Galaxy Note 7 phones catching fire began to mount, Samsung management pushed hard for a solution. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, scans of some of the devices showed a bulge on batteries made by a Samsung affiliate that was not present on batteries supplied by others. A rush to judgment ensued. Samsung recalled the product and began providing customers with new phones using the non-bulging battery.

There was just one problem: Within weeks, new incidents were being reported with the newly supplied phones. At that point Samsung killed the product.

The sheer volume of product and its dollar value are far beyond the scope of problems any of us will probably deal with in our careers, but the steps that led to this disaster are all too common. This incident provides a great coaching moment for all businesses managing product quality.

The bulge in some of the batteries was clearly not the root cause of phones catching fire. It was just a symptom. Symptoms can often lead to the discovery of a root cause, but they can just as frequently have nothing to do with it. Symptoms get a lot of attention because they are visible. But root causes can often be more subtle things lurking beneath the surface.

Visible symptoms can lead to a very common problem, which is the confusion of correlation and causation. For example, there is a very strong correlation between shoe size and a young person’s reading ability. Generally speaking, people with larger feet are better readers than people with small feet.

You don’t actually think bigger feet improve reading do you? Of course not. Bigger feet are also correlated with another variable — age. Age is the root cause of better reading ability. People with bigger feet tend to be older and with age comes improved reading.

This example is a silly one, except for the fact that it is the kind of mistake made over and over when companies deal with defects in processes and products. There are many reasons this happens.

Finding the root cause of a problem can take considerable time and effort. It may take a collaboration of many people with different skills to brainstorm possible causes, eliminate symptoms and find the root cause. In many cases the process is hurried and performed under extreme pressure for an answer.

Customers, investors, executives can all be clamoring for an answer. It is no wonder in those circumstances that a highly visible and suspicious symptom may be identified as the root cause. That is exactly what happened with Samsung. We need an answer. We see a bulge in one type of battery. That must be it.

Another reason that root-cause analysis fails is that companies don’t train enough people on the problem-solving tools and techniques that are best practices in this area.

That is probably not the case at Samsung, but it is very much the case at many smaller businesses. Tools such as Failure Mode and Effects Analysis, Pareto analysis, Ishikawa diagramming and brainstorming techniques for problem solving are not deployed in many businesses.

To avoid a mess like Samsung’s, don’t rush the search for a root cause when a product fails. Use a team of well-trained subject-matter experts. Give them time. If necessary, bring in outside assistance with analysis tools and techniques. Invest in getting it right.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at [email protected]

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