By Rochelle Kopp, Managing Principal, Japan Intercultural Consulting
Japanese business has brought genin tsuikyu, known in English as root cause analysis, to an art. Among businesspeople in the U.S. and other countries who have studied Japanese quality management and problem-solving methods, the phrase “root cause” will be quite familiar. However, outside of these circles, the phrase might not be known. More colloquially, people may say “get to the bottom of what happened”, “hone in on the key factors that caused this” or more simply “find out what went wrong.”
Even if it’s not done as a formal technique, looking at the root causes of a problem is a typical Japanese approach to business. It’s related to the habit of hansei, reflection. However, in other cultures the work environment may not necessarily be conducive to open discussion of root causes.
One rather extreme example of unwillingness to address root causes took place at a Japanese company’s factory in the U.S. The Japanese management discovered that a valuable piece of equipment – a large die – had been damaged. When they asked the factory workers, everyone claimed that they had no knowledge of how it had happened. Because the damage could not possibly have occurred in and of itself, surely somebody new something about it. Yet no matter how many times the Japanese managers asked, nobody would come forward with any information.
This may seem puzzling from a Japanese perspective, but it makes sense if you consider the American environment. Due to the lifetime employment custom, Japanese employees tend to feel comfortable coming forward with admissions of mistakes. However, with no such feeling of job security, Americans tend to fear that if they admit to causing a problem they will be viewed as the problem –and possibly lose their job as a result. And indeed in many American companies, someone might well be fired for doing something like causing damage to a valuable piece of equipment. Because everyone is aware of this, nobody wants to be seen as “snitching” -- thus the situation at this company, where nobody would come forward with information about what happened.
From the Japanese point of view, it’s impossible to solve a problem if the root causes have not been identified first. However, as in the case above, Americans are often reluctant to talk directly about root causes, because it might reflect badly on an individual. This means that the root cause remains hidden, and it’s difficult to really get to the heart of the matter. The result is that efforts at kaizen can be stymied.
So how can Japanese managers create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable talking about root causes, even if that involves mentioning ways in which people didn’t necessarily perform as well as they could have? The key thing is to first clarify that the intention is not to find a scapegoat, but rather to discover what caused the problem, so that it can be addressed. Statements like “I’m not interested in pointing fingers” or “I’m not looking for someone to blame” can be helpful.
Rewarding or celebrating those who come forward with information about root causes also helps create an atmosphere where people are more likely to speak out. Offering training in problem solving techniques can also help make root cause analysis part of the work culture of the firm.
This article originally appeared in Global Manager magazine