Getting to the root cause.


While out for a bike ride with a friend of mine today, we talked about the class on A3 thinking that I'll be teaching this fall at the Stanford Continuing Studies Program. As I described the importance of finding the root cause, he told me about a fascinating example of root cause analysis by the National Park Service. (My source for this story is here.)

There was excessive wear on the Lincoln Memorial from all the cleaning it was getting because of bird droppings. The Park Service experimented with different cleaners and brushes to cut down on the wear. That didn't work so they looked at it differently and asked "Why are we cleaning it so much?" Because of all the bird droppings.

They put up nets to keep the birds out and it worked some but not well enough and the tourists complained about them. They went one step further and asked "Why do we have so many birds coming to this monument?" After studying it they determined it was because of the insects that swarmed the monument in the evenings. They tried different types of insecticides but nothing seemed to work for long. So they asked "Why do we have so many insects swarming the monument?"

They determined the bright lights that illuminated the monument in the evenings were drawing the insects. They found out that by turning on the lights 1 hour later each evening they could eliminate over ninety percent of the insects and the resulting bird droppings. The brushes and cleaners, nets, and insecticides all addressed symptoms of the root cause. The Root Cause was the lighting and once it was addressed the problem went away.

This story really exemplifies lean thinking at its best. The Park Service solved a major problem without spending large amounts of money or reallocating huge numbers of resources. By taking the time to understand the problem instead of jumping to solutions, they were able to institute a cheap, effective countermeasure.

As you know, I'm fascinated by the dysfunctional relationship people have with email, and the waste that it often creates. This story makes me think of all the technological solutions that companies are peddling to fix the email blight. Yes, they may work. But I'm not sure that they're really addressing the root cause of the problem. You can categorize, prioritize, analyze, sort, thread, and color-code your messages all you want -- but you're still going to spend a preposterously large amount of time dealing with mail. Perhaps it would be better to figure out why you're getting so much, and how you can prevent its creation in the first place.

How are you going to stop the (metaphorical) bird crap from invading your office?

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