Aliens, Hot Pockets and Root Causes

Something strange has been happening at the Parkes Observatory in Australia. For the past 17 years, astronomers at the facility have recorded a curious phenomenon that appears to emanate from deep space – short, random bursts of radio waves called perytons. And, for 17 years, they were unable to explain the source, raising the question…

“Are we alone?”

The root cause of the unexplained phenomena was discovered this past spring. Noting a key distinction that signals have always been picked up on multiple viewing fields and not from a single source, astronomers knew that the waves likely emanated from an Earthly source. Could it be lightening? Cell phone signals? Aircraft communications?

Once the scientists installed a real-time radio interference monitor, they saw that the waves had similar characteristics as those that come from a standard microwave.

Sure enough, when researchers conducted some analysis, they found that the short bursts showed up anytime someone opened the microwave before the timer had gone off. When they looked at the data, they also discovered another key distinction – bursts never occurred at night, and tended to be clustered around the lunch hour.

While this root cause of this problem, radio telescopes are still picking up perytons from deep in space. But now they know that it’s likely just some impatient alien that’s tired of waiting for a Hot Pocket. Read the story here.

This story may be comical, but when unexplained problems arise in our organizations, it’s no laughing matter. Here are some tips for identifying the root causes when actual results don’t match expectations:

1. Develop an IS/IS NOT Description of the Problem: Is your problem only in one region and not in another region? Only with new software and not legacy software? Knowing what pieces are not affected is just as helpful as knowing which pieces are affected, and will help you isolate the real problem and reduce the list of possible causes.
2. Draw Distinctions: Once you have isolated the problem, draw distinctions between the affected area and those that aren’t affected. The peryton problem was unique to the Parkes Observatory (whereas others don’t allow microwaves or cell phones), and, in hindsight, scientists noticed the anomaly only happened during the day when the telescope was oriented in the general direction of the kitchen.
3. Test Possible Causes: Once you have isolated the distinctions that are the most likely causes of the problem, run some small, pilot tests that allow you to verify the actual root cause before implementing large-scale, costly changes.

At Action Management Associates, we have been helping clients find the root causes of problems for over three decades. If you would like to avoid getting zapped by unresolved issues, give us a call at 800-386-5611! We’d love to help.


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