Root Cause is a way of thinking that allows us to continually improve complex systems with both manageable and emergent properties. It implies an ordered sequence of events. However, having worked many root cause analyses as a quality engineer, within complex and even simple systems the causal chain is not linear, direct and easy to understand in many cases. Thus it is important to understand the system elements, their interactions and interrelationships. It’s necessary to understand the boundary conditions of an event. Often in the business world, root cause analysis is associated with attempting to understand the underlying factors that made something undesirable happen in order to make more desirable things happen whether that be in a product, process, or service. If we apply this to our personal business, doesn’t this sound like self-improvement? We are the product of our actions. The sense of who you are now is created in the choices and actions taken in the past. We are the output of the processes executed in the past.
There may be more than one root cause. There may be symptoms that relate to the issue not directly related to the cause or contributing factors. As Andrew Bernstein points out in his book, The Myth of Stress, “Everything happening now is the effect of prior causes.” Thus, it is important in our reflection on what’s causing our issues or successes we distinguish the issue from the symptoms and the root causes from the contributing factors. To do this, it is necessary to understand the relationship between what we are trying to address and the causes. We have to ask ourselves questions. We may have to follow a chain of why questions just like children do. Then we need to look at whether there is a strong correlation between our observations and the issue? Is the effect we are evaluating repeatable if we change what we think is the root cause? If it’s not repeatable, then it’s most likely not the root cause.
The important thing here is to develop an understanding of what we can take action against. Our time and energy is of great value so we need to apply actions that serve our needs effectively and efficiently. Our reflections have to generate actionable items or the result will be of little value to our future selves.