Root Cause and Symptoms

‘Root cause’ is a phrase that has been thrown around for a long time, but how often is the difference between root cause and symptoms known?

Image representing root cause

When a problem crops up and we find what went wrong, we will do something to fix the problem or ideally prevent it from happening again.  Too often we fix or at least work on the issue that came up and this issue may only be a symptom of the root cause and not the root cause itself.  If we address only the symptom because we don’t have time or resources to work on root cause analysis, then there is a very good chance that in the future we may end up spending more time and resources working on a future problem which is a symptom of our current root cause.  This is where knowing the difference between root cause and symptoms is important.

Doctor representing symptoms Imagine you go to your doctor with a cough and he prescribes a medicine to clear up your cough.  You walk out happy.  A few days later you’re back in the doctor’s office with shortness of breath and he treats you by prescribing an inhaler or medication.  A few days later you are going back to your doctor and he treats your fever.  A couple of days later when you are lying in a hospital bed with pneumonia, you wonder why your doctor didn’t pick up on it earlier – it’s because he was treating a symptom each time and not the underlying root cause of the symptoms.  You might think that this is an exaggerated analogy, but in today’s world where sourcing replacement suppliers is so much easier, any interruption to supplying customers can be as bad as business-pneumonia.

Root cause has been used as a buzzword and sounds great when we talk about finding and fixing root causes.  If the phrase root cause is to be used, it is my opinion, that the statement should be backed up with whatever Root Cause Analysis was done.

Time spent on Root Cause Analysis should be thought of as an upfront investment – the pay-off being the avoidance of future issues.  You may ask why bother?  Because it may or may not be a big issue, or even happen again.  Based on that same logic, why do you pay insurance?

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