Solve Problems, Not Symptoms


Here at APT, we strive to solve problems, not treat symptoms.

Just like when you visit a doctor, the symptoms are clues to discover the underlying disease or problem – rarely does a successful doctor just treat the symptom. As an example, if your problem was a leaky roof, treating the symptom is getting a bucket to catch the leak. Fixing the roof is addressing the underlying problem.

A great tool for visualizing this tendency to focus on symptoms is an Ishikawa Fishbone Diagram (see Figure 1 below). Dr. Ishikawa was a Japanese quality engineer who applied statistical quality control methods (like those introduced by Deming in post-WWII Japan) to problems in manufacturing. What he discovered is just as applicable to our business as to manufacturing: while there are lots of problems that cause interruptions to production, there are just a few basic root causes. He ended up drawing lots of pictures where the problem looked like the head of a fish and the root causes and contributing factors looked like the bones in the fish skeleton.

Figure 1

Dr. Ishikawa’s keen observation was that all problems could be attributed to one of four basic root causes – which he called Machine, Man, Methods, or Materials. No matter what happened, he could trace the root cause back to these four elements. For our leaking roof example – he would attribute the leaking roof to (a) vibration of the AHU (MACHINE) on the roof, (b) lack of maintenance (MAN) on the roof AHU, (c) improper installation (METHODS) of the AHU roof sleepers, and (d) incorrectly specified sealant (MATERIALS) on the roofing system.

The real power to this observation and this tool is that any problem (like our leaking roof) should have solutions that address each of the root cause categories. Bringing in a bucket (even a bigger bucket) only addresses the symptom.

Here at APT we recognize that all problems have several root causes, and we ensure that these root causes are addressed in our proposed solutions. To put the four categories into simple terms – think about your equipment inventory (MACHINE), your training and certification process (MAN), your Standard Operating Procedures (METHODS), and your critical spare parts (MATERIALS).

If your organization is like most, you spend a lot of time and money on equipment installation, maintenance, and repair (after all, that is your O&M budget!) but very little on training, documentation, or critical spares. This is a critical piece of information – it means you will continue to have problems until you address the other root causes. Companies who can provide resources for their customers that address all four of these basic root causes will be successful in any organization and in any job.

APT’s solutions include visual elements that address the four common root causes of problems. I sincerely hope the Ishikawa Fishbone Diagram tool shows up in your next incident root cause analysis, and on your next O&M or Capital budget proposal to management. I welcome anyone who can share their real world experience with this tool or similar tools as well.

Andy Taylor
CEO, Applied Power Technologies, Inc.