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Don’t Treat the Symptoms – Turn off the Pump


Don't Treat the Symptoms - Turn off the Pump

Find the Root Cause

In August 1854, there was a deadly outbreak of cholera in the Soho district of central London. Cholera leads to diarrhoea, vomiting, dehydration, and in many cases to death. Thousands of people fell ill and over 600 died.

At that time, medical authorities believed that cholera was caused “Within 250 yards of the spot where Cambridge Street joins Broad Street there were upwards of 500 fatal attacks of cholera in 10 days… As soon as I became acquainted with the situation and extent of this irruption of cholera, I suspected some contamination of the water of the much-frequented street-pump in Broad Street.”

Remove the Pump Handle

Snow showed his research to the local authorities and persuaded them to remove the handle from the pump to make it inoperative. New cases of cholera stopped. He had cut off the problem at the source. It was later found that the pump drew water from a well which had been contaminated It is an early example of root cause analysis. There are three key actions in the process:

  1. Determine the root cause of the problem Innovation Impediments

    I worked with an organisation which wanted to improve innovation. The top leaders were dissatisfied with the level of creativity, agility and innovation in the business. They had tried offering rewards for good ideas, installing sofas and ping-pong tables; they had even set up an innovation incubator unit. But things had not improved. They had been treating the symptoms of the problem rather than the root cause. We carried out an audit to find out what was really impeding innovation. We found that the root cause was a risk averse culture which was deeply embedded. The leaders were unwittingly sending out signals that success is what matters and that failure is disdained. People were not motivated to carry out experiments or to propose initiatives because the implicit message was that they might fail and be blamed. We implemented a series of actions to change the culture. It took time, effort and constant reinforcement.

    Whatever the problem you are facing, try to resist the temptation to just treat the symptoms. Use some problem analysis methods to determine the fundamental cause or causes of the issue. Fix the root cause and then check to see if that has fixed the problem. Then take the learnings throughout the organisation. You have to remove the pump handle!

    Get the Change Planning Toolkit from Braden Kelley

    Image Credit: Pixabay


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