That's Life
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

I mentioned in my post about the Five Whys approach to Root Cause Analysis something called an "Existing Reality." In one of my early assignments, the leader of our process improvement project was conducting an Five Whys, and we got to a point in asking "Why?" where the answer was, "Manufacturing Delays." We were laying these out on "stickies," and our leader immediately put up another next to that one: "That's Life."

Why? (Pun intended.)

Isn't the purpose of this exercise to get to the root causes? And if Manufacturing Delays were the problem, wasn't that what needed to be solved?

Yes... and no.

It's not enough to identify root causes. Although it would have been a mistake to overlook Manufacturing Delays, that was not actionable by our team. Neither us nor our management nor our management's management could have marched up to the factory in question and demanded that they Stop This Delay Right Now This Minute. Presuming that we (collectively) were not laughed out of the plant straight away, we would have been told that there was nothing we would be able to do about the situationólike, were we going to take our business somewhere else?


So while Manufacturing Delays was a root cause, and belonged in our diagram, it was what I and others in Black Belt Land call an Existing Reality. It was not in our scope to address this problem.

That may seem like a Complete Cop-Out, but it's not. Instead, it allows us to focus on the areas that we can control and impact. A root causal of ice cream melting in the freezer might be a catastrophic power failure, but there's not much you can do about that. But you can install a generator, which is an actionable response to "no power."

It can also be a telling data point when a root cause analysis is peppered with Existing Realities. A team that has no ability or authority to do anything to address any root causals, or none but the most trivial root causals, is not what I would call set up for success. That's where the Project Champion and/or Sponsor need to step in. If, after an intervention by one or both to get the Project Team some firepower, there still is no progress, then perhaps it's time to seriously rethink at least the project scope. If the Champion and/or Sponsor don't offer assistance and simply suggest or mandate that the team carry on, then you've got the Existing Reality of failure.

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