By Michael Palmquist and Shawn Murphy
Many solar contractors feel as though they are always “fighting fires.” A “fire” in this context might be a problem that nobody saw coming, however, in most cases it’s actually an issue that periodically repeats itself in the business. Repetition of problems indicate an underlying chronic condition in a business operation. These conditions can cause employees to spend a good portion of their day addressing issues that could have been avoided if the condition were resolved. However, busy people always seem to find the time to “fix the immediate problem,” but rarely find time to eliminate the actual cause of the problem.
Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the systematic process of identifying the root causes of problems in order to identify appropriate solutions. The root cause is the core issue—the highest-level cause—that sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction that ultimately leads to the problem(s). And finding the underlying cause of a problem may not be obvious at first glance. Addressing the root of the problem stops the same problem, or a variant of it, from occurring again.
Techniques for Root Cause Analysis
In a business, the root cause of a problem should almost always point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. A root cause should never be something generally uncontrollable such as “human error”, “workers’ inattention”, or “there wasn’t enough time.” Answers that are out of your control are not helpful.
Having consistent, standardized information system(s) will improve the success rate of your analysis when problems occur with projects. When a contractor is in fire-fighting mode, information about individual jobs may be missing key facts. To implement RCA, contractors should keep track of key project milestones, changes of status, communication between people involved in the project, and customer feedback.
The techniques used for finding the root cause of a problem depend on the business and the problems. Complex manufacturing operations may use highly sophisticated measurements and mathematics to find root causes. But for contractors, there are many simple and effective techniques which can be easily implemented. Here are three techniques that are easy to use and require no advanced mathematics or tools:
This is a simple, yet effective tool. The procedure is to describe the problem in specific terms and then ask why. You may have to ask “why” multiple times to obtain the root cause. Look for the cause step by step. Don’t jump to conclusions. Base your statements on facts and knowledge; not conjecture.
A Pareto chart is a bar graph where the lengths of the bars represent frequency and are arranged in descending order from left to right. In this way the chart visually depicts which situations are more significant.
Constructing a process flow diagram that shows each step in the process – from creating a new lead through project completion can be very helpful. The root cause of many issues can be traced to faulty processes.
RCA Example Using the “Why, Why” Technique
Scenario and Problem
The inside sales manager of a typical medium-sized local residential solar contractor handles incoming calls and qualifies the leads. If qualified, the inside sales manager schedules an on-site sales appointment with the potential customer using the company’s CRM software, which has a shared calendar that lets him see everyone’s schedule.
Over the past month, two different sales consultants missed their scheduled sales appointments with customers, who both ended up buying PV systems from a competitor.
Why? The sales consultants said they were relying on a text message from the inside sales manager telling them about the scheduled meeting, and they never received the message.
Why? A few months ago, some of the sales consultants asked to be notified of upcoming scheduled sales meetings via text messages, as well as on the shared calendar. They found the text message more convenient if they were in the field.
Why? For a few of the sales consultants, the sales manager would also manually send text notifications. He only did this for some of the consultants, and didn’t always remember to do it for all scheduled meetings.
Why? Two unlinked scheduled-meeting notification systems had developed over time. One of the systems was not consistently used and updated.
Management quizzed all sales consultants and found that, if they were in the field, the text message reminders were a desired feature. Further investigation showed that the existing CRM calendar features could be configured to automatically send a reminder text before the scheduled appointment. This solved the underlying problem of having two unlinked systems, one of which had to be manually updated.
RCA Example Using Pareto Chart and Process Flow Diagram
Scenario and Problem
A contractor has been collecting customer surveys at the completion of the project. While most customers are happy, there are enough “less than stellar” responses to be worrisome.
Contractor reviews all responses that were less than “excellent” to see if there were any underlying issues that stood out. After aggregating the data and sorting it into general complaint categories, the contractor produced the Pareto chart shown here.
Most of the complaints fell into three main categories:
- Poor communication during the installation phase (9 instances)
- Questions about their first post-solar utility bills ( 8 instances)
- Monitoring questions or issues (6 instances)
Based on this chart, the contractor decides to investigate the three main causes in depth by calling those customers to get additional information.
The customers who complained about poor communication explained that they did not hear from the contractor for long periods during the design and installation phase. Some customers worried that the company may have gone out of business or forgotten about them. For the customers who cited utility bill questions and monitoring issues, the contractor found that although the sales consultants had briefed customers about their post-solar utility bills and about internet-based monitoring during the sales process, the customers had forgotten that information by the time the project was installed.
As a next step, the company decided to map out their process flow, a highly- simplified version of which is shown below.
The process flow analysis revealed that there was very little communication with the customer from the day of site visit until the project manager called to schedule the installation. Due to material delivery issues and permitting delays this period averaged three months.
To improve customer communications, the contractor decides to make use of their project management software’s automated customer email notification system which sends an email to the customer at the completion of major milestones, such as permit submission, keeping the customer apprised of progress on their project.
To reduce customer dissatisfaction around monitoring and utility bills, the contractor creates and begins distributing a new customer FAQ sheet at the completion of each job. This is added to the job closeout process. Contractor also adds a new process step for an employee to proactively call the customer two-months after installation is complete. This is a long-enough time to ensure the customer has one full monthly bill that includes solar production. The employee reviews the customer’s bill results, confirms that the customer can sign into the on-line monitoring system, asks for a customer survey, and also mentions the company’s referral policy.
RCA as an Everyday Practice
When faced with a problem, employees should ask themselves “Why did this occur?” rather than just “How do I fix this now?”
For example, let’s say a sales consultant interrupts the design engineer to ask if they will install a reverse tilt on a north facing roof. Then the next day another sales consultant asks the design engineer if they will install a residential ballasted array in a particular AHJ. This design engineer is unsure so she interrupts the other design engineer who has more experience with that AHJ. The design engineers can just answer the questions. However, the problems are that the sales team has to stop their sales process to find answers, and the design engineers are regularly interrupted from doing their work – plus the company is at significant risk if an engineer quits or is unable to be at work.
In this case, the root cause is simple – key information about what the sales persons are allowed to sell is not readily available to them.
As a resolution, the technical team creates and begins maintaining a database listing all the AHJs where they do business along with any special notes pertaining to design. At the next sales meeting, the design engineer shows the other sales consultants how to access this information on their own. This new shared resource gives sales consultants the information they need, reduces the number of interruptions to the engineering team, and enhances the resiliency of the company.
It is important that employees not get in the habit of just doing the quickest fix. This can be especially difficult for construction managers who are solving small, but urgent, problems all day. These employees may need to occasionally reserve some time away from the office to think about things in a longer-term, more-organized way. RCA is especially helpful when dealing with persistent problems that never seem to go away. Stubborn and recurrent problems are often so because they contain deeper issues, and “quick fixes” only solve the surface issues.
Contractors who do not address the root causes of issues tend to be less efficient, have high overhead costs, and often have issues scaling their business. Contractors can employ simple root cause analysis methods to find and resolve their problematic processes. The root causes of problems faced by contractors are usually found in insufficient or non-existent processes rather than things out of their control like “human error” or “not enough time.” The techniques described above can be used alone or in conjunction with other methods. They can also be group exercises used during project retrospective meetings (described in previous blog post). Contractors who address the root cause of issues and fine-tune their processes tend to spend less time fighting fires and more time running profitable, satisfying businesses.