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Problem-solving using the Timeline Root-Causing Technique


Did you ever get into a meeting where everyone was pointing fingers at each other to avoid the spotlight because of some catastrophe that occurred? How do you manage those high emotional tensions if you were the one facilitating? If the fault is yours, doing the right thing and owning up to the responsibility is a leadership trait. But if you are not to blame but somehow have fingers pointing at you, how do you get yourself out of the situation without burning bridges or throwing in the towel?


My suggestion to you is to put on your Sherlock hat and root cause the issue to find out what really happened. One great technique to use for this type of problem-solving, that looks only at facts, is creating a timeline. This technique has proved to me over and over again how simple, yet effective it can be to understand what really happened. I’m a proponent of the truth being a three-edged sword where there is your side, their side, and the “what really happened” side. In this blog, I will explain step-by-step how this timeline root cause (TLRC) technique works.


TLRC follows the logic of learning from past failures and thus utilizes a past situation to pinpoint where exactly in the process the error occurred. It can be used when trying to understand why your company is losing business or why your product keeps on missing the delivery date. The technique does remove the subjectivity or emotion from the situation, and it uses factual information to figure out what happened. The time involved to root cause really depends on how easy it is to get access to the information.


Let’s go through the steps of the TLRC technique along with an example:


STEP 1 — Problem Statement: you need to articulate exactly what issue you are trying to solve.


EXAMPLE: Our customer did not receive the product on time even though we fast-tracked it in the factory, prioritizing it over all other orders.


STEP 2 — Collect information: This is the hardest part of the technique, so, put on your Sherlock hat and retrieve any communications and documents that are tied to the issue. This can include purchase orders, contracts, emails, letters, meeting minutes, and so on. Whatever you do, do not pinpoint one person, and take information only from them. Collect from all stakeholders that are involved in the issue. Remember to only collect factual information that has occurred when pertaining to this issue, no side-bar conversations.


EXAMPLE: Collected the quotation with its revisions, the sales order, customer service emails communications of this order, customer purchase order, manufacturing work orders, and vendor’s quote.


STEP 3 — Organize the information: Color-code each piece of information so you can easily identify on the timeline. If you prefer using post-it notes, then use an assortment of colors when writing the documents’ summary. If you are going straight into Excel as shown in this example, then create a key code. Have abbreviations for the documents’ name. Be consistent with the information you are drawing out from each document collected by extracting the date, time, people involved, document # (if it exists) and short description.


EXAMPLE: Extracted from all these documents were: sender and receiver of the communication, the date, a short summary of what transpired, and the revision of the document if there are any revised. The customer communications are in pink, work orders in grey, vendor purchase orders in green, and so forth.



STEP 4 — Create Timeline: At the center of the page, create a thick line which will be your timeline. In the line, type out the months, weeks, or even days. This really depends on the length of your issue. If it occurred in a week, you would want to see what happened daily. If the issue you are looking into happened in a year, you may consider dividing the timeline bar into months.


EXAMPLE: In this example, it happened within the April to June period, so it was decided to place the timeline in days.



STEP 5 — Place document information in Chronological order: Based on all your post-it notes or the Excel cards, start placing them in a chronological order from left to right. Organize the post-its information on top and bottom to space out the information. Also, if there was an email with a trail of information, you create a post-it for each communication trail, then place it from top to bottom so everyone can follow the logic. You can also use a numbering system if that helps.


EXAMPLE: The information is aligned by date and starts with the oldest time on the top of the timeline.



STEP 6 — Analyze the timeline: Hold a meeting with the team involved and discuss the results. If you prefer, you can also do an analysis of the data before having the meeting. I find having everyone see the timeline and going day-by-day grounds the group so they can see what sticks out as possible issues.


EXAMPLE: When going through the timeline, we observed that the purchase order for the materials, which is a long lead item, was not ordered went the salesperson confirmed the sale but only after the customer’s purchase order came in. Since the salesperson promised less than the standard lead time, off the bat this delivery would have been late because due to the materials lead time. The salesperson confirmed with the factory the accelerated deadline, but it was with the person that was leaving the company. Unfortunately, this person did not record the accelerated timeline, nor did they go for approval to buy the vendor’s materials asap.


STEP 6 — Corrective Action: Now that you see what really happened, instead of pointing fingers and blaming each other, you start thinking of how to avoid this in the future. It’s important you come up with next steps if anything needs to be corrected in the process so to avoid it in the future.


EXAMPLE: Since the staff turnover was high due to a merger, the operations director needed to put in place a handoff between the people leaving the company and those staying. The sales team was told to respect the company’s lead-times and if there was an order, they were working on that required faster delivery to go directly to the operations director.


STEP 7 — Follow-up: whenever you make changes, adoption of these changes needs to be ensured. It’s important to check in the first few months if the changes have become standard practice. Make sure the changes are made before you close out this root cause exercise which includes communicating the actions taken to the people involved and training them in the new way of working, if applicable.


I assure you once you use this TLRC technique, it will become one of your favorite problem-solving tools whenever craziness occurs at work, and everyone is pointing fingers.



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