Of all the traits that characterize a successful leader, there is one that truly stands out — particularly in moments of crisis when effective leadership is needed most. It’s the ability to get to the root of a problem instead of wasting valuable time, money and resources on merely treating symptoms of issues as they occur.
Noted preacher, Dr. Tony Evans, once used a curious analogy during one of his sermons to describe this leadership trait as it relates to ministry, but the same analogy can be applied to business. Many years ago, in European sanitariums, scientists implemented crude ways to test the mental capacity of their patients and inmates before releasing them back into society. One of those tests included locking the inmate in a small janitor’s closet with a mop. In the closet there would be a sink with water running from an open faucet and a stopper in the sink causing the water to overflow. The inmate would be instructed to clean up the mess. After 10 minutes, the scientists would return to check on the inmate’s progress. If the water was still running and the person was still mopping, they knew the inmate wasn’t ready to go back into society because he was not capable of addressing the cause of the problem.
As business leaders, much of our time is spent mopping up messes instead of unplugging the stoppers that are creating the problem to begin with. What a terribly inefficient and ineffective way to operate, much less lead, an organization.
According to a 2011 study titled, “Making the Business Case for Leadership Development: The 7% Differential” by The Ken Blanchard Companies, poor leadership, in general, is costing the average company an amount equal to 7 percent of their annual revenue. “That’s over a million dollars a year for any organization with $15 million dollars or more in annual sales.”
David Witt of Blanchard’s leaderchat.org identifies three key affected areas:
Employee turnover: “Poor leadership is responsible for up to 30 percent of the reasons why people leave their organizations according to exit interviews conducted by The Saratoga Institute.”
Customer turnover: “Poor leadership negatively impacts employee satisfaction, which in turn negatively impacts customer satisfaction and retention. Research published in Harvard Business Review calculated that every 5 point change in employee satisfaction scores caused a 1.3 point change in customer satisfaction scores.”
Employee productivity. “Poor leadership leads to poor employee productivity. Research from Blanchard shows that direct report productivity can be improved 5-12 percent through better management practices.”
Given the grave consequences associated with poor leadership and problem-solving skills, business owners and managers should learn and implement a popular technique known as Root Cause Analysis to help answer the question of why a problem occurs in the first place. Using a series of steps to find the primary cause of a problem, a Root Cause Analysis will help you determine what happened, why, and what to do to reduce the likelihood that it will happen again.
One of my favorite online resources for professional development, www.mindtools.com, lists the five identifiable steps of the Root Cause Analysis Process:
Step 1: Define the problem. What do you see happening? What are the specific symptoms?
Step 2: Collect data. What proof do you have that the problem exists? How long has the problem existed? What is the impact of the problem? You must analyze a situation fully before you can look at factors that contributed to the problem.
Step 3: Identify possible causal factors. What sequence of events leads to the problem? What conditions allow the problem to occur? What other problems surround the occurrence of the central problem? During this stage, identify as many causal factors as possible.
Step 4: Identify the root cause or causes. Why does the causal factor exist? What is the real reason the problem occurred? Analyze each factor. Dig until you uncover the root cause and effect at each level.
Step 5: Recommend and implement solutions. What can you do to prevent the problem from happening again? How will the solution be implemented? Who will be responsible for it? What are the risks of implementing the solution?
When you take the time to implement a root cause analysis, and involve your team in the process, you will find that the actual benefits to your organization far exceed the obvious avoidance of the problem at hand. You’ll empower your team and earn respect as a leader who unplugs the stoppers and gets to the root cause of the problem.
Manny García-Tuñón is a columnist for El Nuevo Herald and president of Miami-based Lemartec, an international design-build firm.