Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Ahhhh. The calling card of any manufacturing facility, power plant, or energy concern—the ROOT CAUSE EVALUATION (RCE). The dreaded. The expensive. The resource sapping. The RCE. We lead this Leadership In Action piece by challenging a long-held assumption. Namely, are we using RCEs correctly? Our thinking suggests that we could be a whole lot better here. Let us explain via story.

Two months ago, we sat in on a monthly safety meeting with a major manufacturer. After many months of sub-par safety performance, they were able to rattle off two months of ‘best-in-class’ or ‘best-in-history’ safety performance. Leaders and managers, alike, smiled and even clapped. They started talking about a Safety Celebration. We weren’t buying it, so one of our ELP Leaders raised his hand and asked, “Where’s the RCE?” The Plant Manager quickly shot back, even a bit agitated, “Didn’t you hear? We just had our two best months ever! We only do RCEs when we’ve fallen short of a standard. Here, we surpassed any safety metric we’ve ever had.” Our ELP Leader was not deterred, “Well, how do you explain that? You went from 5 sub-par, even horrible safety months, to two of your best. How do you explain that? How do we replicate that? What caused that? What is different or better that drove those results?” The Plant Manager quieted and a slow smile started. He got it.

Most organizations employ RCEs when things go bad and when operations go off-track. Pioneering, top-performing organizations do the unthinkable—they do RCEs when they get a string of good performance. Bad RCEs involve ‘circling bullet holes’. In other words, its postmortem and the damage is already done; it is a reactive—not proactive—exercise. Good RCEs mean learning from what we are doing well and applying it to other parts of the organization. As an aside, this is tough to do and requires discipline, as we don’t tend to question our successes, we only tend to question our failures. For instance, we’ve got one client who is nearing a record of on-line performance—a breaker-to-breaker run—a feat done only once in their history of refueling outages. We’ve prodded them to ask the why question. What is the organization doing that has caused this uptick in sustainable performance so a) we can continue to exhibit those behaviors or execute those principles, and b) we can transfer some of these practices to other parts of the organization. Lady luck cannot be the answer on why performance has improved. There is a reason. Finding it is the hard part. How can we possibly know how to continue great performance, if we don’t know the recipe? Applying the principles of RCEs to good performance allows us to arrive at and then follow that recipe.

Ray Kniphuisen knows a thing or two or three about RCEs. Reach out to Ray to learn more about how you can leverage RCEs for entirely different reasons—to sustain revolutionary performance rather than just learning from mistakes. His email is