In WWII, injured soldiers and civilians presented vague symptoms of irritated skin and respiratory distress. Baffled doctors simply labeled the cases “dermatitis YTD.” YTD meaning “yet to diagnose.” Unable to receive the correct diagnosis, many died.* The most important skill in medicine is the ability to diagnose. There may be lots of ways to cure, but none matter if an intervention is not addressing the right thing.

Skin irritation is a symptom, but not a root cause. Poor execution is a symptom, not a root cause. Disengagement is a symptom, but not a root cause. Leaders need to have discipline to get to the heart of things. Often it may seem easier to just “do something” and try to fix issues with big plans like training for everyone when the root cause is lack of training in a specific area.

The same mindset that is applied to root cause analysis for safety and quality issues (when done correctly) should be applied to the rest of a leader’s day. The best leaders find the root cause and are not just content with putting a salve on the symptoms.


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*The Italian port of Bari (soon after being liberated by Allied forces in WW2) was bombed by German forces and destroyed nearly all the ships in the harbor. One destroyed Allied ship was clandestinely carrying a cargo of mustard gas which added to the contamination of the scene and affected many of the initial survivors. Some (who had just come in contact with the contaminated water) may have been saved if the root cause had been known as the corrective action is to simply remove contaminated clothing and wash the affected skin. A fascinating account can be found in the excellent book The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson.