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Radical quest: getting to the root of a problem


Coming Out as a Radical -- or Coming In? (Part #5)


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Religious framing: Given the role of religion in current crises, it is appropriate to note the following comment with regard to the root of any issue by J. Parker (The Root of the Matter: Job 19:28, Bible Hub):

What is the meaning of "the root of the matter"? Everything would seem to depend upon the root; if we go wrong there, we go wrong everywhere. Now what do we mean by the "root"? Sometimes we talk of a radical cure. It simply means a root cure; not a cure of symptoms, not an alleviation of pain for the moment, but going right down to the root. If the root is right, the tree is worth saving; if the root is right the man is saved. The root is the man. Not your coat, but your character is you.

The preoccupation with root cause is also central to the widely appreciated Encyclical on Climate Change (Laudato Si' on Care of Our Common Home, 18 June 2015)?, recently presented by the Pope in anticipation of the UN Conference on Climate Change. The Encyclical introduces its discussion of the "roots" of the present situation as follows:

15. It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church's social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face. I will begin by briefly reviewing several aspects of the present ecological crisis, with the aim of drawing on the results of the best scientific research available today, letting them touch us deeply and provide a concrete foundation for the ethical and spiritual itinerary that follows. I will then consider some principles drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition which can render our commitment to the environment more coherent. I will then attempt to get to the roots of the present situation, so as to consider not only its symptoms but also its deepest causes....

Radical identification of the root cause of problems generally: Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving used for identifying the root causes of faults or problems (Paul F. Wilson, et al, Root Cause Analysis: a tool for total quality management, 1993). A factor is considered a root cause if removal thereof from the problem-fault-sequence prevents the final undesirable event from recurring; whereas a causal factor is one that affects an event's outcome, but is not a root cause. Though removing a causal factor can benefit an outcome, it does not prevent its recurrence within certainty.

As a 5-step process, it is described by Mind Tools (Root Cause Analysis Tracing a Problem to its Origins) in the following terms:

  • Define the problem
  • Collect data
  • Identify possible causal factors: What sequence of events leads to the problem? What conditions allow the problem to occur? What other problems surround the occurrence of the central problem? During this stage, identify as many causal factors as possible. Too often, people identify one or two factors and then stop, but that's not sufficient. With RCA, the point is not simply to treat the most obvious causes. The need is to dig deeper.
  • Identify the root cause(s): Why does the causal factor exist? What is the real reason the problem occurred?
  • Recommend and implement solutions: What can be done to prevent the problem from happening again? How will the solution be implemented? Who will be responsible for it? What are the risks of implementing the solution?

That description makes particular reference to the 5 Whys outlined in Wikipedia. This is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem (Asian Development Bank, Five Whys Technique. adb.org, February 2009). It is the subject of various further clarifications, notably from a Six Sigma perspective:

A psychotherapeutic variant is considered by Mark Tyrrell (10 Therapy Questions to Get to the Root of the Problem: 10 therapy questions to get to the root of the problem).

Consideration of RCA is taken further in the articulation of a System Improvement Process methodology by Jack Harich (Solving Difficult Large-Scale Social System Problems with Root Cause Analysis, Spanda Journal, 6, 2015, 1; separately titled Root Cause Analysis and the Duelling Loops of the Political Powerplace):

Problems like sustainability, recurring wars, and excessive concentration of wealth have defied solution for generations. Problem solvers are unable to solve problems of this class because of lack of root cause analysis. This omission has led to solutions that intuitively look like they should work but in practice do not, because they fail to resolve a problem's root causes. This article presents a method for applying root cause analysis to problems of this class, followed by the results of applying the method to the sustainability problem. The method is the System Improvement Process. Process application led to construction of a relatively simple simulation model called The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. The model explains why change resistance to solving problems of this class is insurmountably high and pinpoints the root cause of that high change resistance. The analysis thus offers some insights into how problem solvers might better go about designing solutions that in practice could work, because they are focused on resolving specific root causes.

Harich introduces his argument as follows:

There exists a class of problems that society has been unable to solve for generations or more. This class includes over population, environmental sustainability, recurring wars, avoidable large recessions like those of 1929 and 2008, endemic corruption, and excessive concentration of wealth. These problems are characterized as difficult, large-scale, and involving multiple intelligent social agents. They also involve systemic lock-in, as for example Garrett Harding explained in The Tragedy of the Commons for the environmental sustainability problem: Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Let's label this class Difficult Intelligent Social Multiple Agents Large-scale Lock-in (DISMALL) problems

In the remarkable analysis by Harich, these DISMALL problems bear a strong and fruitful relationship to the recognition and study of what are otherwise termed wicked problems.


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