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Melissa Shanahan

#245: Putting Band-Aids on Problems vs Root Cause Analysis

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How do you deal with frustrations, mistakes, and problems within your firm as an owner? Do you take the time to investigate, dig under the surface-level symptoms to find the deeper issues that could be at play? Or do you do what's necessary to keep moving forward and stick a pin in them for a later date?

"Facts not feelings" is a core belief that Melissa teaches and lives by at Velocity Work, and sometimes in order to get to the facts of an issue at your law firm, you need to get underneath what might appear to be the problem. Unlike surface-level problem-solving, root cause analysis aims to uncover the root cause of a problem and prevent it from recurring, and it’s the secret to saving you, your team, and your clients a ton of heartache and pain.

Listen in this week to hear why root cause analysis is the most responsible way of dealing with problems in your firm, and Melissa’s favorite tool for uncovering the deeper reasons something isn’t working. You’ll learn the gifts that come with taking the time to abide by this practice, and what happens when you commit to a systematic approach like root cause analysis.

If you’re a law firm owner, Mastery Group is the way for you to work with Melissa. This program consists of quarterly strategic planning facilitated with guidance and community every step of the way. Join the waitlist right now to grab one of the limited seats when enrollment opens again!

Show Notes:

What You’ll Discover:

• How root cause analysis is defined.

• The reasons you must consider root cause analysis in your company.

• Why root cause analysis offers long-term, permanent solutions.

• How to operate from facts and numbers instead of feelings and hunches.

• What happens when you’re committed to root cause analysis.

• Melissa’s favorite concept for digging beneath the obvious symptoms of a problem.

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#86: Fall In Love with the Problem with Tucker Cottingham of Lawyaw

#210: Answer Meetings: A Container for Finding Solutions

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Full Episode Transcript:

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I’m Melissa Shanahan, and this is The Law Firm Owner Podcast Episode #245.

Welcome to The Law Firm Owner Podcast, powered by Velocity Work, for owners who want to grow a firm that gives them the life they want. Get crystal clear on where you're going, take planning seriously, and honor your plan like a pro. This is the work that creates Velocity.

Hi, everyone, welcome to this week's episode. I'm so glad you're here. Today, we are talking about root cause analysis. Most of you probably know what that is. I will definitely dig into it, so even if you're unclear, I'll make it clear today.

The reason that we're talking about this is because, as an owner, it's very important that you don't just put a band aid on things inside of your company. It's important that you get underneath it, to what is actually the problem, not what appears to be the mistake. But what is the problem underneath the mistake, for example, so that the business can function really well.

The reason I'm bringing this up here today, is because this is how we think inside of Velocity Work. This is how we work with clients and with members. When something is frustrating, when something goes wrong, when there's mistakes, how do we deal with those in a way that's very responsible as an owner?

The responsible way of dealing with these things, which there's a whole bunch of benefits to doing it this way, the responsible way of dealing with these things is to determine the root cause. From there, the solutions are usually very apparent and long term, and prevent a whole bunch of frustration in the future.

Okay, though I have many ways to talk about root cause analysis… I think about it a lot inside of my own company, and working with clients and members... I looked up the definition to be able to share it here as a starting point for anyone who just really wants to solidify how they're thinking about this before we get into more of a discussion.

Root cause analysis is a problem-solving method used to identify the underlying fundamental cause of a fault, problem, or issue. Unlike surface level problem solving that focuses on symptoms, root cause analysis aims to find and address the root cause of a problem, thereby preventing the same issue from occurring in the future.

It involves a systematic investigation that digs beneath the obvious symptoms to uncover the deeper reasons for a problem’s occurrence. By addressing these root causes, organizations and individuals can implement more effective and permanent solutions, rather than applying temporary fixes that don't solve the problem in the long term.

All right, so now, before I dig into some of the things I have to share, and some things that you can think about for yourself and for your firm, the reason I'm doing this episode is because this is what our company is built on. If you've been a listener for any length of time, you've heard me talk about facts, not feelings. Members and clients, you hear me say all the time, facts, not feelings.

And to really get to the facts, you have to get underneath what appears to be the problem, or what appears to be at first glance, the thing to do. It's like a hunch that you have.

Well, we need to back that up. We need to know that the decisions we're making are informed decisions. That they are based on facts, not feelings; numbers, not hunches. And the more that we abide by that, the healthier the organization becomes.

This is very close to home for us, and I've been thinking about it a lot more lately inside of my own company. Because we've been working really hard on getting to the root cause of some things behind the scenes. And it's been such an awesome, fruitful journey to take the time to do that. I always take time to do that with my members and clients.

I think that you'll probably relate to this, that it's so easy as an owner to put band aids on because things are moving so quickly. And the gift that you can give yourself and your team and your clients by doing a root cause analysis, or having a systematic approach to dealing with things that aren't going well, or things that maybe generally they're going well but there was a mistake, and really understanding that mistake.

Something that comes to mind… If you haven't listened to that interview, it's a pretty good interview. It was done, shoot, four years ago I think, on the podcast. I cannot believe it's been that long... I interviewed the founder of Lawyaw; which got acquired by Clio since that interview has happened.

His name is Tucker, and it was a great conversation. One of the things that he said in there was the importance for him, and the motto within the company Lawyaw, was to fall in love with the problem. And the more that they fell in love with the problem, the better they were at delivering their product. I stayed on that talking point for a while with him.

This is what it's all about. When you fall in love with the problem, when you spend time understanding the problem, you have the ability to understand root cause. That is the power of falling in love with a problem.

And so, as I was doing research preparing for this podcast, and also pulling together examples and different things, I couldn't help but think about that conversation. It's a great one to supplement this episode. If you want to listen to it, we'll put it in the show notes for you.

I realized… before I also dig in… this is super unsexy stuff. If you're still listening at this point… I mean, we're like, I don't know, five and a half minutes into this episode. If you are still listening at this point, thumbs up and kudos to you.

Because this stuff that is not the shiny, not the stuff that will pull your attention away from what you're doing, this is the boring work that produces real results that are going to give you what you're looking for. So, if you're still here with me, yay, let's keep going.

Okay, so why should we bother doing root cause analysis? What are some of the reasons that we need to consider this for ourselves? Well, one, is it actually identifies the underlying issue. There are so many times that we treat the symptoms, and really, if we can just get underneath it to figure out why something is happening, then you can actually prevent it from happening again.

But instead, we think the solution is just to tell… Maybe if a team member messed something up that was client facing, and you say, “Hey, no, that's not the way to do it. You need to refer to the process. Do it differently,” and that's how that was dealt with, that is not understanding why. Maybe they did read the process, maybe they didn't read the process and so that needs to be addressed, but you don't understand why the mistake happened.

You are making assumptions with why the problem ended up the way that it did. But you are not getting to the facts, you're making assumptions. And so, that's one reason it's important. You want to actually identify the underlying issue. The issue at face value, is that your employee didn't follow through in the way that you “expected” them to.

People will get defensive with this and say, “It's in the document. It's in the process. It's in the SOP.” I'm like, “Okay, but if you give that SOP to someone, is it good enough? If you give it to someone who hasn't done this job before but is capable, if you give it to them would they succeed? Or is there something missing?”

Really, for them. For you, no, you got it. You know exactly what to do. There's this unwritten stuff that you are also abiding by. So, I'm just using that as one example of what, really commonly, I see owners who think they've identified the issue but they are not doing root cause analysis. So, they do not actually know what the issue is. They're going on assumptions and hunches.

For those of you who don't go on assumptions and hunches, that's fantastic because then you're dealing with facts, not feelings. You're dealing with the truth of a situation, not your opinion about how this all went down, your assumption about it. So, first one, identifying the underlying issue.

The second reason why, is that it will prevent reoccurrence. Instead of reminding someone of the right way to do it, and then it happens again a few times later, and then it happens again a few times later, that's super frustrating as an owner, to see the recurring mistakes happening.

And so, this will prevent recurrence. Which means it's a long-term solution instead of slapping a band aid on to fix it in the moment. Next time this comes up, if you slapped a band aid on the first time, it's not going to go well this next time. So, identifying the root cause prevents recurrent mistakes.

The next reason why, is that it will improve your processes. Your processes are probably decent. Most of you listening to this, if you have processes documented, they're probably decent. Are they great? I don't know. Chances are, they're not fantastic but they're decent. And so, this will improve good to great; that's meaningful, going from good to great. This commitment to identifying root cause can take your processes from good to great.

The next few are tied together. But something else that root cause analysis allows for, is better decision making. I just alluded to this moment ago. But it lets you make more informed strategic decisions when you really understand the underlying cause of the challenge at hand. And because you're able to make better, faster decisions, higher quality decisions more quickly, it saves money and resources, and it reduces risk.

Everything becomes more efficient. There is a streamlined nature to the output at your firm, when you do focus on root cause analysis. Not just focused, when you're committed to root cause analysis. When you are committed to finding out what's underneath the problems that you are seeing, and that you and or your clients might be experiencing.

The final reason I'm going to give here, though I definitely think that there's more. But what feels like the last important reason to state here, is that it builds trust inside of your firm, and maybe transparency as well. Because what ends up happening is, it makes an issue not personal. Because you focus on the issue at hand and the underlying cause of it, instead of focusing on the people and blame being put out on the table.

So, when there is a culture of turning to root cause analysis, it depersonalizes the mistakes, and that's healthy. Even if it is somebody who… Let's just say you have somebody that was just being lazy, then okay, maybe they're not a great fit. But most of the time, guys, most of the time, it's not people being lazy. There's an underlying root cause, and it's worth exploring.

By exploring that, you can improve the culture inside of your firm because there'll be more trust that you aren't going to point the finger at somebody. You're going to point the finger at the problem, and you guys are going to work together to do a root cause analysis. That creates a healthier internal environment, and everybody wins when that's the case; the owner wins, the team wins, the clients win. It's a much better way to operate.

I truly believe that a client services business, it's even more important with root cause analysis. Because the issues that you have can directly impact client satisfaction, retention, definitely your bottom line. So, there's really no reason to not pay attention to this.

I'm going to tell you my favorite way of getting underneath a problem. It's called the Five Why’s. I'm sure many of you have heard of it before. But we're going to cover it here. I learned the Five Why’s in 2008. I think it was the first time I really learned the concept, and it took practice to do it in a way that felt ultimately productive.

But I think if I would have had somebody walk me through it differently, it wouldn't have taken me so long. So, I'm going to try to do that here. Basically, with the Five Why’s, when you ask: Why did X problem happen? There is an answer, a surface answer. You take that surface answer and you ask why about that? So you say, “Well, why was ‘surface answer’ a thing? Well, because…” You keep going down, and you ask “why.” You take the answer and you ask “why” about the answer, five times.

By the fifth, why you will likely be at the root cause. Maybe before then, but oftentimes it takes the full five. So, I was trying to think of an example that it'd be really easy to run you guys through, that you're probably very familiar with. With client services, sometimes due dates and deadlines are missed. That's something that I hear, that we work on and we fix with clients and members.

So, if you take that: Why was the deliverable delayed? “Well, the team often misses internal deadlines.” Why does the team miss internal deadlines? “Well, they're usually waiting on critical information from clients.” Okay, why are they waiting on information from clients? “Clients aren't clear on what information is needed and by when.”

Okay, why are clients unclear about what's needed from them? “The team's communication about requirements and timelines isn't always clear or comprehensive. It's not always put in a place, or communicated in a way that the client will reliably, or actually receive.”

Why is the team's communication not clear, and why is it not in the right place? “Well, we have a standard process for letting the client know that we need this information, but we don't have a good system for following up.” Okay, here we go. You finally get to it.

Instead of just dealing with the frustration that is missed deadlines, being behind, and all the implications of that inside of your firm, by stopping and asking “why” you get to the root of it. Now, you may already know this in your brain. You may not have to go to the Five Why’s.

You know that there is a process improvement that's needed. But when you have these discussions with your team, do not assume that they can make that jump. Having them walk through, and walking through together the Five Why’s, helps your team develop the skill of thinking about problems differently. That's why it's important.

Sort of related to that, there were times where I've been at a team retreat, and a certain portion I had covered with the owner in previous retreats, but now they have new team members here. So, I am covering certain things just to make sure we're all on the same page, and really set the stage for good work, right?

That's what we're all here to do. That's why we're taking space away from the day. In two different times of my career, and I've been doing this a long time, I have had owners say, “This is second nature. We totally get this part. We need to skip ahead to the other stuff.” I'm like, “Don't do that. People don't. They are not you. They do not think how you do.”

Essentially, you are hiring people to carry out the business that happens in your firm, and you want to cut them out of some fundamental stuff before we make real plans for your firm? Absolutely not. I'm not doing it. I am not one to waste time, I'll tell you that. I am Mrs. Efficiency on a on a lot of levels. So, I'm down to pack things in and make things so that we aren't wasting time, but that's not the answer.

It's very similar, even if you know what the last final answer to the last final “why” is going to be, that is not a reason not to walk through this exercise with your team. Especially with the team member that the mistake could have occurred. But a team exercise doing this can be really helpful.

Okay, I was thinking through another example we could run. Because I like to use this as well, for when it's yourself and you're trying to examine why something isn't happening, or why there's something going wrong for you, as the owner. Not even going wrong, but for instance, a habit that you want to develop, a routine that you want to have, but it's not happening; you flame up and flame out kind of thing.

This can be a useful tool in that instance, as well. So, certainly within your firm, but this can also be applied to you. One of the things that I hear from law firm owners often, is that they know they're supposed to track certain metrics. And they know that they're supposed to review those metrics, because of course, it's a business and that's what would be healthy for the firm. But they don't.

Sometimes they even put the event on the calendar, but they don't do it. You can use the Five Why’s on something like this, that you want to actually show up differently and better for, and get underneath it. Figure out for real what the problem is.

So, if we run with that example, why doesn't the owner regularly track and review metrics, certain metrics, even just a few key metrics? A very common answer, is that other stuff frequently pushes out the metrics review out of their calendar. And so, then you ask, “Well, why does other stuff take priority over this review of metrics?” A common answer… I want you to answer these for yourselves.

I want you to think of a scenario for yourself and answer these questions. I'm going to give you a common set of responses. “The owner perceives immediate tasks and client meetings as more urgent and directly impactful to the firm's success.” That is the truth.

And even if intellectually we understand that that isn't the truth, that that can't be the truth, we know in order to really get our hands around this business and take good care of it and create a really healthy business, that that can't be true. Yet, that's the way we operate.

So, if you ask the third “why”: Well, why are these other tasks and client meetings perceived as more urgent? And the answer would be, “There is a lack of understanding or lack of appreciation of how regular tracking contributes to long game success, strategic decision making, and playing the long game.”

Okay, so why is there a lack of understanding or lack of appreciation on this tracking metrics regularly? The answer there, in many cases, is that the owner hasn't experienced the connection between, or they don't regularly see direct correlations between, tracking and reviewing those metrics, and improved firm performance, or problem solving or the ability to make decisions.

The other way to answer this, or the opposite side of the coin on this, the other way to look at it, is that owners have evidence that success comes when you grind it out. And in order to honor the calendar event, and not let something else come up and push it out, you are going to have to be committed to the long game.

You're going to have to be committed to this new way of operating, instead of reacting and jumping in to the operational kind of stuff, the production kind of stuff, for your firm. That's an identity shift.

And then, if you ask, “Okay, so why hasn't the owner seen correlation between tracking and firm performance?” That boils down to, there is no system put into place to communicate the impact of focusing as an owner on these kinds of things, what that has on the firm. We all know we should do it.

But you haven't really experienced it if when you show up, you consistently pay attention to these things, you make decisions based on these things, you have other people paying attention to these numbers as well, and you evolve your relationship with the numbers, everything gets better in the firm. But you haven't had that experience, maybe quite yet.

You want it, but you haven't had it. You want it, but you keep letting other things come up on your calendar. You want it, but it keeps getting pushed to the side. You want it, but you don't know how. You want it, but… Whatever your but's are, those are some of the “why’s”.

And the deeper you can get underneath it, for you, you can start to have a look at what is it going to take in order for you to actually show up for these things? And let me just tell you, willpower isn't it. Now, discipline does play a part.

But when you think about you, and all that you're working for, and all the things that are pulling at your attention, and you expect yourself to be a rock star with this new identity, this new thing that you're supposed to step into, this new activity that is what you should do, and everybody knows you should do it.

When you are expecting that of yourself, while doing all of the other things you're doing, you set yourself up to fail. I'm not saying it's impossible. But I think one thing that I’ve noticed with these Five Why’s, is that when I do these for myself, and when I get underneath things for owners, as a person with all that they're dealing with, usually under the last “why” is something to do with needing support in a way that they're not providing themselves support.

Oftentimes, that looks like accountability. So, accountability for your firm, and all the efforts that you have in your firm, and wanting to grow it in the right ways. Maybe it's something around your health, and you need to sleep more. And so, how can you work with someone, work with a professional, that can help you line yourself up to be able to get more sleep? Or to be able to take care of yourself better?

I recently did these Five Why’s on some health-related stuff in my own life, and that was one of the things that came out of it at the end. It was, “I need support here. I'm expecting myself to adopt a new set of patterns and behaviors to support myself. But I'm also expecting a lot of myself on all the other hours of the day. Okay, what am I doing? I just need to get support with this thing. I need to pay a professional to come in and be a partner with me. Help me think through things, talking through some of the barriers, making a plan, and then accountability for honoring the plan”

This stuff is so funny, and we leave it last on our list. Part of what I do for clients is that, but within their firms. And for the owners to experience the life that they want, to work towards the life that they want, through the firm that they have.

Hiring me, and hiring Velocity Work,  is a step that they took to support themselves in a way that's going to get them a result. It's going to help them stay on track. It's going to keep conversations alive that somehow continue to die off.

And so, it's no different. And even though I do this job, I needed to be reminded of it for me in a different aspect of my life. So, I do think walking through the Five Why’s is very important. I do think that on the last “why” what you will likely find and you see… Do the work for yourself and uncover what the answer to the final “why” is.

But if you need support, get yourself support in whatever category of life we're talking about. This episode sort of feels like it's been all over the place. I know we've been talking about root cause analysis. But this idea of root cause analysis will save you a lot of heartache and a lot of pain in your own firm, and also for you as an individual. It's a good thing to abide by.

Okay, off my rant, off my soapbox. But listen, root cause analysis, it's the way to go. Get on board. Find a way to do it in your firm. Really fall in love with the problem. And culturally, in your firm, that's what you guys should do every time there's a mistake. “Whoa, we're going to push pause, and we're going to take seven minutes to get underneath this.”

Sometimes, it's all you need. Sometimes you'll need longer, and you can schedule more time when it makes sense for you guys. But we don't just breeze past them and say, “Oh my gosh, we'll do better next time. Oh my gosh, I need to add that step in.” Maybe that's true, but just take a little time to run through the Five Why’s and see what comes of it.

I've never met a business or an individual that is worse off for asking these questions. There's always an improvement in efficiency and effectiveness and morale and in mood, people's moods; yours, theirs, your team, everybody.

If you feel like you could be doing a better job with this, if you feel like you could approach problems better when it comes to root cause analysis, just take one thing. Decide on one thing that you're going to start doing in the firm that's going to pave the way for root cause analysis to be done, and for this conversation to stay alive.

Oh, I forgot to mention on this podcast, I have done an episode on Answer Meetings. What that looks like for our company, how clients really get a lot out of them. But there's someone else I work really closely with, and she calls them “problem-solving meetings,” it's the same thing. It's root cause analysis. It's a space to do that.

You can have that. We used to do it as a company every single week. It was an hour-long meeting. And now, we've gotten through so much and cleared the decks when it comes to issues, we don't have these recurring things continuing to happen.

And now, because of our training that we did with ourselves on root cause analysis, we can actually do that in a meeting that we're already having. We don't have to have a separate problemsolving meeting or answer meeting.

But those were really great training for our company, and it's been great training for firms that I've worked with. So, that's something you can institute that provides a container for you to do root cause analysis together as a team. We just kept a spreadsheet of the issues that happened: who was involved, why did the problem happen? I asked a couple of “why’s” in the spreadsheet.

And so, they would fill that out and it would give us a really good running start when we hit the meeting. That's another way you can institute these Five Why’s and get underneath this, is have a container, a set meeting, for the mistakes that have popped up so you're giving them their due time to get underneath of the actual problem. I'm glad I remembered to say that before I stopped recording.

Alright everybody, I'll see you here next Tuesday. We're going to be talking about building on root cause analysis. I almost recorded the episode before this one. I thought, “No, let's do this first. It'll be a good foundation for what's coming next.” So, I'll see you here next Tuesday, with building on and sort of looking at this from a different angle.

Alright, everyone, have a wonderful week. Bye-bye.

Hey, you may not know this, but there's a free guide for a process I teach called Monday Map/Friday Wrap. If you go to, it's all yours. It's about how to plan your time and honor your plans. So, that week over week, more work that moves the needle is getting done in less time. Go to to get your free copy.

Thank you for listening to The Law Firm Owner Podcast. If you're ready to get clearer on your vision, data, and mindset, then head over to where you can plug in to Quarterly Strategic Planning, with accountability and coaching in between. This is the work that creates Velocity.

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