There is a Castle I visited in Riegersburg, Austria that is devoted to women and witches. Built on top of a dormant volcano back in the medieval ages, this picturesque fortress stands tall above the village around it, to tell the story of its past owner, a strong baroness who went out of her way to preserve her legacy. It also holds a story of her maid who met her less fortunate fate when she was killed as a witch during the notorious witch hunt of medieval ages which culminated in the Western Europe of the 17th century. Named a “Flower Witch” and blamed for all kinds of poor weather conditions, this woman was given no chance for a proper investigation or a fair hearing. A human life sacrificed for the society’s disease, in the grand scheme of things, she became only one of possibly millions of victims of this misguided process. The process aimed at hunting down the otherwise-minded individuals (of both genders) for irrational reasons, with little interest in finding any factual evidence of their fault.
Witch hunt was the way for the governments and the clergy to deal with larger scale societal issues through pinpointing an easy target instead of identifying the underlying causes of the problems at hand. An out of control persecution and the subsequent execution of the “witches” without the defense or trial is pretty much obsolete in most of the world. But the mentality still widely exists. We see examples of it all the time in mainstream Media vilifying certain groups due to their religious, ethnic or ideological differences.
A Modern Day Witch Hunt
Minus the fanfares and the flames of the inquisition, the mentality of scapegoating and general fault-finding are very common in modern workplaces as well. In a haphazard fire-fighting mode, very similar to panicky misguided methods of their faraway predecessors today’s managers often run around looking for an answer to a workplace issue. When they cannot explain why the phenomena occurred, don’t have the time, or wish to avoid publicising the true reasons, they find someone to assign blame to. This way the management gets to plop a bandage onto the problem and move on to the next item on their busy agendas.
What this method does, it allows organizations or groups within them to avoid taking responsibility for a failure or the lack of the planned success and allows to assign the blame to a smaller group or a specific individual as a proposed solution. Pointing a finger seems to be the easiest way out. But it does not provide any real solutions. Instead of doing that, we should be focusing on identifying the underlying issues behind the symptoms we see. A Root Cause Analysis should be conducted, with the help of one of the tested methods from Quality Management. The process doesn’t have to be too fancy or too complicated, at least not for every investigation. Such method as 5 Why’s could be of help. By simply asking “why” type of questions at least 5 times to dig deeper and deeper into the problem statement you gain a better understanding of what is causing the problem until you get to the bottom of it.
The Vital Few and the Trivial Many
When you conduct your investigation properly, most of the time you find that the root cause goes beyond the superficial “human error”. Most of the problems are actually caused by the system itself which one way or another allowed for the things to fall through the cracks. Quality Management gurus that I have studied warn us that the vast majority of organizational problems are system problems, while only a few remaining ones can be assigned to human errors. The numbers vary from 80/20 to 95/5 percent.
So if at least 80% of our problems are related to the system issues it means that we don’t solve them by announcing to the world that the culprit was fired and not even by ostracising the scapegoat internally. System problems are resolved by improving the very processes our system is comprised of. After all, the witch hunting practices of the past did not eliminate any of the societal issues. They won’t solve organizational problems either.
And in the end of the day, if your investigation pointed out that people are at fault, the undesirable actions and behavior of certain individuals within the organization may still be an indicator of a larger scale organizational problem.
Benefits of the Root Cause Analysis
Conducting effective root cause investigations is not easy, and it’s not easy to maintain a true no-blame environment which still fosters accountability for one’s actions and inaction. But it is worth it, as the benefits it yields are countless. Here are only some of them:
- The obvious benefit – it improves organizational processes and, consequently, the quality of the product or service you provide;
- Prevents issues from recurring in the future;
- Affects customer and public perception of your organization even after a failure, as long as you own up to what’s happened;
- Provides valuable knowledge from the lessons learned, which can be shared with the rest of the team including any future team members;
Aside from the fact that time spent today is money saved in the future, building a no-blame environment will bring massive intangible benefits as well. With the improved employee morale, instead of the witches and the witch hunters, you will end up with the team of highly effective individuals, who look for facts, not fault and can be always relied on for goal-oriented problem-solving.