Root Cause Analysis

Establishing The Issue That Lies Beneath A Presenting Problem



Root Cause Analysis - Overview

The mental model of root cause analysis involves establishing the issue that lies beneath a presenting problem.

Often the true underlying root issue is not immediately apparent and is only uncovered with persistent investigation.






Applying Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis can be applied in many different contexts.These tend to fall into 2 categories:


[1] Situational

The traditional application of this technique is situational and frequently in organisations and businesses where there has been a systemic, process or performance failure.

With this type of analysis the objective is to uncover the ultimate root cause and to identify the appropriate remedial action to prevent a re-occurrence .

There are various factors which we must take into account when figuring out root causes.

  • The location of the effect
  • The exact nature of the effect
  • The severity of the effect
  • The time at which the effect occurs
  • The level of vulnerability to the effect
  • The cause of the effect
  • The factors which prevented it from being more severe.


[2] Relational

The other - and frequently neglected - application is relational, that is to say uncovering the root underlying issue behind someone's behaviour and thus being able to understand them better and to provide the most resourceful response.

For example, I might say: "My partner has left me." The given reason will be something along the lines of: "She says she doesn't love me anymore".

But a deeper enquiry will reveal that in fact she has feels that I am controlling and do not allow her enough space.

A few weeks later, when she has an emotional and psychological breakdown and seeks professional help, it becomes apparent that she has deep-seated issues going back to her childhood when she was physically abused my her uncle who used to beat her with a belt.

The "solution" in this situation could be for me to let her know that I still love her and I am "holding a space" for her while she heals. This basically means that rather than angrily trying to deal with the many presenting issues that accompany a relationship breakdown I let her know that I am giving her as much space as she needs while she heals and that I hold no expectations.

This will require a high level of emotional maturity on my part but ultimately will allow for us both to heal and move on, either together in a renewed relationship or separately.






Establishing Root Causes

This is where we apply some of our thinking skills and employ mental models.

First Principles Thinking whereby you reduce the situation down to the most basic parts that you know are true. This involves removing all assumptions and digging deeper and deeper than most people will until you are left with only the foundation truth of a situation.

Shane Parrish suggests you can follow these steps:

  1. Clarifying thinking and explaining origins of ideas. (What happened? What do I think caused it?)
  2. Challenging assumptions. (How do I know this is the cause? What could have caused that cause)
  3. Looking for evidence. (How do I know that was the cause? What can I do to prove or disprove my ideas?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives. (What might others think? What are all the potential causes? )
  5. Examining consequences and implications. (What are the consequences of the causes I have established? How can they help me solve problems?)
  6. Questioning the original questions. (What can I do differently now that I know the root cause? How will this help me?)





Another mental model that can be applied is Second Order Thinking which is about going beyond the obvious and avoiding unintended consequences. This involves questioning everything, not making assumptions, and when exploring possible solutions, always asking "What happens then?" and "Why?".

A variation of this is the "5 Whys" technique, which necessitates asking ‘Why?’ five times to a given statement. The purpose is to understand cause and effect relationships, leading to the root causes. Five is generally the necessary number of repetitions required. Each question is based on the previous answer, not the initial statement.

Using the example of a laid off employee  we can see how this technique works - Shane Parrish  again:

  • Effect: I lost my job.
  • Why? Because I was not valuable enough to the company and they could let me go without it causing any problems.
  • Why? Because a newer employee in my department was getting far more done and having more creative ideas than me.
  • Why? Because I had allowed my learning to stagnate and stopped keeping up with industry developments. I continued doing what I have for years because I thought it was effective.
  • Why? Because I only received encouraging feedback from people higher up in the company, and even when I knew my work was substandard, they avoided mentioning it.
  • Why? Because whenever I received negative feedback in the past, I got angry and defensive. After a few occurrences of this, I was left to keep doing work which was not of much use. Then, when the company began to experience financial difficulties, firing me was the practical choice.
  • Solution: In future jobs, I must learn to be responsive to feedback, aim to keep learning and make myself valuable. I can also request regular updates on my performance. To avoid becoming angry when I receive negative feedback, I can try meditating during breaks to stay calmer at work.






Other mental models that can be usefully employed in root cause analysis are:

  • Occams Razor which states that the best explanation is the one that requires you to make the fewest possible assumptions about what's involved.
  • Probabilistic Thinking which is essentially about trying to estimate, using some tools of math and logic, the likelihood of any specific outcome coming to pass.






Return from "Root Cause Analysis" to Mental Models




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