Good landscape companies fix problems, while great landscape companies get to the root cause of why the problems happened in the first place and work hard to prevent them from happening again. Here are some examples of how great landscape companies use root cause analysis to lead their organizations.

1. They place focus on prevention, not blame. Example: An employee is not following a defined company procedure and it causes a service delivery issue. After the service delivery issue is stabilized, the employee’s manager identifies the responsible employee and writes him or her up under the disciplinary policy in the company handbook. This is a common theme in great companies. These companies find those at fault or responsible and reprimand them using the policies and procedures in the company handbook. This shows everyone how serious the organization is about solving problems and using the company handbook as a tool to achieve this. In this example, the company handbook is a tool of purpose — not a tool of convenience. Holding someone accountable doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be disciplined.

Blame is sometimes confused with accountability, and accountability within an organization has come to refer to disciplinary action. Accountability actually means taking responsibility for actions and instigating specific steps so the problem is less likely to occur again — and it does not require punishment.

Over and over again I see landscape business owners deal with problems, but I only see a few that really invest the time figuring out why a mistake was made in the first place. The person who made the mistake knows the answers, yet if that person doesn’t tell us why the problem or incident happened, they will never know what specific actions will correct the problem. The blame-and-punish approach teaches others in an organization that if they make a mistake they should make sure no one finds out.

There must be certain performance consequences within an organization. While many jump too quickly to punish the guilty, thinking about what will prevent a problem from occurring again is what is really critical. It’s critical in all organizations to always identify why a problem was created, whether or not a person followed an intended procedure and then focus on the specifics behind the incident.

Ask yourself this question: Does your organization focus on finding specific actions to prevent problems or look for someone to blame? Ultimately, organizations should focus on the actions, not the person.

2. They know a cause never stands alone. Example: An employee does not follow a defined procedure, resulting in a business interruption. The root cause is determined to be “did not follow procedure.”

Most people incorrectly believe that root cause analysis ultimately finds one cause. When asked to define a root cause, they typically say, “It’s the one thing that caused the problem to happen.” A longer explanation might go as follows: “Root cause is the fundamental cause that, if removed or controlled, prevents the problem from occurring.” This seems reasonable, but in reality it’s not accurate.

The explanation requires a review of systems thinking. A system is nothing more than a combination of processes that work together to perform a function. If you were to ask four team members, “What’s the most important part of the process?” you might get four different answers. While four people possibly provided different answers, all of them told the truth; not one is wrong.

This statement reveals a misconception behind root cause: the thinking that one thing caused the problem. People use the logic that if that someone didn’t follow the procedure, not following it caused the problem; if the procedure were followed, the problem would not have happened. Put simply, a root cause isn’t one cause but a system of causes working together.

Documenting a problem is a critical part of the root-cause analysis process. A problem description — defined as a narrative typically written to chronicle an issue — can help piece together what actually happened in an incident.

You must remember that a problem description, however, is not an analysis, which is defined as the breaking down of something into its constituent parts. Translated into problem-solving terms, the “constituent parts” are the problem’s causes, so problem analysis means to break a problem down into causes.

An analysis involves piecing together a problem’s myriad cause-and-effect relationships with strings of causes and effects. Unlike job procedures or work processes, which build forward through time (first perform step 1, then step 2, then step 3), a problem analysis builds backward through time, with the analysis asking why an event occurred the way it did.

As a side note, a timeline can be very helpful on some issues to understand the sequence of events, but it is not an analysis. Timelines can complement problem analyses very well. A timeline, the process analysis and its visual tools, along with process maps, can help build a complete understanding of the problem at hand.

3. They start an analysis with the impact to the goals, not the causes. Example: An owner or manager asks a team member or group of people within the organization, “What’s the problem?” Everyone answers with something different. Some people respond by saying, “That’s not the problem, this is the problem …”

No question fosters disagreement within an organization more than “What’s the problem?” People see things differently. We have experts in disparate fields who hold different backgrounds and knowledge, and we can use this to our advantage but only if we communicate effectively. This happens through accommodating different points of view. Knowing that a problem is a systems issue created by multiple causes working together helps bring these different views to light. Each view can be seen as just one cause among many that lead to the ultimate problem.

When people say the problem is “there are weeds all over the place,” someone else may respond by saying “the weeds were sprayed and they will die.” What causes this disagreement is the fact that the investigation focuses on the problem, not an organization’s overall goals.

Overall goals get everyone, regardless of perspective, to give the same answers. These overall goals truly define problems. If you want people to disagree, start talking about the problem. If you want them to agree, start the investigation by focusing on the impact to overall goals.

4. They apply the basics of cause-and-effect, not the buzzwords. Example: A problem occurs within your company. The company incident-report form asks for the immediate cause, the basic cause and the root cause. If one person fills out the form, no issues arise. If two or more contribute, no one agrees on which causes are the basic, immediate and root causes. If companies do not recognize the system of causes for a given incident, they attempt to simplify the issue by adding adjectives to describe certain types of causes.

A cause is defined in the dictionary as something required to produce an effect — it’s that simple. All these terms can be boiled down to two: cause and possible cause. Cause describes anything supported by evidence that is causally related to a particular issue. Possible causes are hypotheses that lack evidence and need to be substantiated.

5. They know problem-solving works throughout an organization. Example: Within an organization, problem-solving (root cause analysis) investigates only certain types of individual problems that have already happened.

A problem-solving technique should not be limited to only certain situations. The cause-and-effect principle provides the bedrock of all problem-solving methodologies in all circumstances, be it an internal problem, an external operational problem or your team discussing a broader problem involving multiple operating units.

While the level of detail changes, the cause-and-effect does not change. A bias to cause-and-effect allows organizations to understand why issues went poorly as well as those that went flawlessly. It can also help prevent undesirable events from happening in the first place, and it can help determine specific needs to create some desired condition in the future. A simple approach to cause-and-effect is fundamental for developing an organization’s problem-solving discipline. Anchored by the cause-and-effect principle, problem-solving can help investigate and resolve many work-process deficiencies, production problems, equipment failures, customer service issues, productivity problems and more. Indeed, it can help at every level of an organization regardless of company size.