The Practice & Art of Thinking

Leave a comment

Root Cause Analysis – Tracing a Problem to its Origins

This is an important concept and should not be ignored. When solving a problem, you do not want to solve the problem by addressing only the symptoms. You really need to address the issues that cause the problem in the first place.

If you are in pain, you obviously need to take painkillers to alleviate the situation. However, if you have broken your leg, taking painkillers is not going to heal you. True healing is needed before the symptoms can disappear for good.

The above example is easy to understand where the problem is. When the problems are more complex, as social problems can be, jumping in to address the symptoms is not the way to go. If you do this, you may create more problems by complicating issues further. You need to listen to the data and ‘sniff out’ (sorry for the metaphor – but my dogs have been teaching me how good the senses can be) the root cause of the problem.

Make sure you solve the correct problem. Image source: LOR.

Make sure you solve the correct problem. Image source: LOR.

The normal steps to root cause analysis are:

Define the problem
Collect Data
Identify possible causal factors
Identify the Root Cause(s)
Implement Solution(s).

However, let me give you a hint – the process is not linear and sequential.

For instance, to be able to define the problem, you need to have data. To be able to collect the data, you need some indication of what the problem is – otherwise you might be collecting endless, meaningless data. Stalemate? No. I like to see it as a dynamic; a sense making process; a to and fro; a dance.

Image source unknown.

Image source unknown.

We need the assistance of reason.

Let me do a side step and remind us a little about reason.

Broadly speaking, the three thinkers that have changed the concept of reason over time are: Socrates, Descartes and Kant.

The term reason has evolved though time in four basic stages:

  1. Pre-Socratic – reason meant everything that distinguished man from animals – including intuition, mystical experience and dreams;
  2. Socratic – giving clear definitions and logical proofs (Socrates invented logic);
  3. Cartesian – something more like the scientific method – the act of calculating, reasoning and proving, rather than wisdom or understanding. Something we all have the ability to do – unlike wisdom – where some have more than others.
  4. Kantean – he psychologized reason. He said reason constructs or shapes the world, rather than discovering it. It can’t know things as they are in themselves. We cannot know objective reality by reason.


So, in our attempt to make sense and get to the root cause of the problem, we need to use reason as a blend between Socrates’, Kant’s and a touch of Descarte’s definition of reason.  In other words, we need to construct reality as a sense making process (discourse) and we use logic as structure, with the rigours of the scientific method.

Good luck – it is actually quite easy. All you need is the frame of mind to be honest, keep your ego in check and genuinely seek to understand.

Next post, I will explore the notion of complexity, chaos and sense making. I promise it will be super short!