Before you can stand a chance of solving a problem, you first need to have identified it. More often than not we think we know the issues we face as an organisation as the evidence is all around us.
Take staff retention as an example. It will be pretty obvious to all concerned when you are struggling to keep staff as people keep handing their notice in and there are empty desks in offices. But in a sense this represents the ‘effect’, not the ’cause(s)’.
The following tools and techniques are great at enabling you and your participants to dig a little deeper and to start to uncover some of the underlying causes as to why people are leaving. In the case of the H-Form it also helps start the process of moving from identifying issues to generating ideas to solve them.
The H-Form is a simple tool which involves drawing a large capital ‘H’ on a sheet of flipchart paper. The topic under consideration is written in the space above the horizontal line in the ‘H’. The area to one side of the ‘H’ is then used to capture any negative feelings, issues and problems associated with that topic; whilst the space to the other side of the ‘H’ is for capturing things that work well, successes and achievements you would like to build on.
Finally, the space below the horizontal line of the ‘H’ is used as an ‘ideas space’. This is the place for people to add both suggestions for ways to resolve the issues identified and ideas for how to build on and/or repeat the successes.
Participants can then consider and record their feelings in the appropriate space. It’s a good idea to get them to do this on Post-it notes which can then be stuck onto the flipchart paper. It’s not uncommon to take some of these contributions and use them as the basis of a further exercise - putting them on Post-it notes makes this much easier.
It’s best to encourage participants to think about the positives and negatives first and then to flesh out the suggestions. This helps ensure the suggestions are directly drawn from, and relevant to, the situation under discussion.
H-Forms can either be completed as a group, or individually. Doing it as a group offers the opportunity for useful discussion along the way, whereas conducted as an individual process first is more likely to generate a broader range of reactions.
H-Forms are surprisingly powerful at surfacing issues, great at considering a given topic ‘in the round’ and provide a great platform for some of the other techniques we will move on to. On their own, however, as an output they can be difficult for others not present at the session to decipher – and even for those who were there after the event (a few pithy words on a Post-it can seem astonishingly pertinent at the time, but frustratingly opaque when re-read a week or two later.
Beware too that Post-it Notes quickly lose their stickiness! For these reasons we always bring a digital camera to record the forms ‘as are’ (see props). Try to capture a brief narrative summary of the issues raised when each group feeds back on their form to help jog memories when returning to the form at a later date.
Ishikawa or fishbone diagram
The Ishikawa or fishbone diagram is a great little tool for getting to the root cause and identifying underlying issues and can easily be run as a group exercise. Once you’ve identified the issue to be considered (perhaps via an H-Form diagram, or perhaps a graffiti wall exercise), get your groups to draw the following on their piece of flipchart paper and start discussing and labelling the ‘spines’ with as many causal factors as they can think of.
Our tools and techniques chapter has more information on Ishikawa diagrams.
Five Whys is a simple tool which addresses single-problem events rather than broad organisational issues. It attempts to analyse a problem or issue by asking a series of ‘Why (did this happen)?’ questions.
If a problem occurs, the first ‘Why?’ question is asked: ‘Why did this happen?’ A number of answers may be found and for each of these the next ‘Why?’ is asked: ‘Why is that?’ The whole process is repeated until five consecutive ‘Why?’s have been asked and answered. In most instances it has been found that five repeated whys are necessary to get to the real root cause of the problem.
Why are students spending so long queuing?
Because administrative staff take a long time to process enrolment forms
Why do staff take so long to process each form?
Because the forms are complex and the information needs to be checked
Why are the forms complex?
Because we need lots of information so the forms are not easy to use
Why aren’t the forms easy to use?
Because some of the questions aren’t clear and are left blank or incorrectly completed and these always have to be checked
Why are some of the questions difficult to answer?
Because the wording is not clear and the students don’t understand what’s being asked for
Redesign some of the questions on the form.
At each stage there can be multiple reasons – all of which need to be probed further.
An Ishikawa diagram, sometimes known as a fishbone diagram, can be a useful tool in analysing cause and effect. The effect to be improved or removed is written in a box at the right hand end of a long arrow. The possible causes of that effect are then listed and connected to the effect like bones connected to the backbone of a fish. It is then possible to look at all of the factors relating to that cause. The level of detail required will vary according to what you are analysing. The more specifically you state the effect the easier it will be to pin down the causes.
To give a simple example – what are the possible causes of staff leaving before the end of a project? They may include environment, ambition, career prospects, satisfaction (variety, challenges, recognition), remuneration (basic pay, benefits – car, health, pension).
This can be represented on an Ishikawa diagram: