Throughout my entire life I’ve had tummy troubles. Even from a young age, I remember regularly suffering from a number of not-so-fun symptoms (some of which are also not-so-fun to discuss, if you know what I mean).
Despite the ongoing discomfort, I simply learned to deal with an irritable stomach. But a few years ago my condition had worsened to the point that I could no longer ignore it. Without knowing the underlying problem, all I could do was try to manage my symptoms.
A few months ago I’d finally grown tired of fighting a losing, reactionary battle and saw a Gastroenterologist. After only weeks of testing, the solution became clear: eat a gluten free diet. And doing so has singlehandedly erased all of my symptoms. The improvement in quality of life has been remarkable.
Looking back on it, I have to shake my head and wonder, “Why did I waste so much time treating symptoms instead of addressing the root issue?” Then I remembered that humans exhibit this kind of behavior all the time.
People who try to get in shape will focus so much on calorie counting that they fail to consider whether or not the food they consume is even healthy. Employees who want to keep the peace will bottle up their grievances until they finally explode and create even greater problems. And businesses that want to grow will emphasize metrics so much that they miss the deeper, less obvious triggers that really have the biggest impact on performance.
The Trouble with Metrics…
Metrics are important. We should all try to reduce customer acquisition costs, increase customer lifetime value, and improve cash flow. But if in our mad pursuit of better metrics we skip right past a proper diagnosis, then we fail to find any real cure.
Metrics can tell us that something is wrong but can never tell us exactly what is wrong. The goal shouldn’t be to improve the metrics; the goal should be to resolve the problems being reflected in the metrics. Think of metrics as the beginning of trails that eventually lead us to the real problems. It’s our job to follow those paths until we reach their origination and uncover the root issues.
With root cause analysis, which is basically repeatedly asking the question “Why?” to hone in on the underlying problem. Here’s a simple example scenario.
Let’s say you run an e-commerce business that sells widgets on your website. When using the customer acquisition costs calculator you discover that acquisition costs through email marketing have increased by 25% since the previous year.
- Email marketing expenses: $300
- Subscribers: 1000
- Website traffic from email: 75
- Click-through rate: 75/1000 = 8%
- Conversions: 15
- Conversion rate: 15/75 = 20%
- Customer acquisition: $300/15 = $20
- Email marketing expenses: $300
- Subscribers: 1000
- Website traffic from email: 100
- Click-through rate: 100/1000 = 10%
- Conversions: 20
- Conversion rate: 20/100 = 20%
- Customer acquisition: $300/20 = $15
After a little investigation you can see that click-through rate decreased by 2% since the previous year. So it seems that once email CTR is fixed then everything else will return to normal levels, too. Score!
Here’s what normally happens:
You quickly conduct some research on how to improve email CTR and work your way down the list. You change the frequency of emails, experiment with call-to-actions, test subject lines, and try all the other solutions they prescribe, but nothing is setting CTR back on track. You’ve hit a dead end! Now what do you do?
Here’s what should happen:
You skip all the articles, throw out all the uncertainty, and perform a root cause analysis.
This “Why Tree” reveals the core problem. And now you know the real panacea: offer subscribers on-topic content while keeping your email marketer from going crazy.
This could mean bringing in more writers to provide new perspectives. It could mean changing the format of the content to keep it fun for your email marketer (videos, interviews, infographics, etc.). It could mean a lot of things, and it’s wise to weigh all of your options. But most of all, whatever solution you implement should truly address the core issue.
Knowing how to solve the problem is important; knowing what to solve is imperative. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but we need to make sure that the cat really needs to be skinned in the first place (poor little guy!).
Why the Why Tree?
The most important part of solving any problem is defining the problem; every bit of success hinges on an accurate diagnosis. But when a crisis strikes, our gut reaction is to apply the quickest solution that comes to mind. The concept of “act first, think later” runs rampant in today’s business culture because of holding too tightly to heuristics like “time is money” and “it’s better to make a wrong decision fast than a right decision slow.”
But most problems go deeper than surface-level, so diagnoses made prima facie will almost always result in the “wrong decision.” The Why Tree allows you to confidently trace its roots to the real issue and avoid chasing empty rabbit trails.
Furthermore, the truth of the matter is that a quick misdiagnosis wastes far more time than an exhaustive, correct diagnosis. In our scenario above, improving CTR without understanding the underlying issue results in a year’s worth of effort with nothing to show for it. Even though root cause analysis is a longer diagnosis process, the additional time taken on the front end ultimately saves much more time later when the problem is truly resolved.
Perhaps there’s some room for the construction industry’s “measure twice, cut once.”