When it’s a symptom and when it’s a root cause

When a problem surfaces, and after it resolved, it’s a best practice to look for the root cause and find a way to prevent this problem from reoccurring.  Many times the focus is not on the root cause, it’s on the first symptom that one found. Therefore, the proposed solution has not resolved any issue. It just takes time until the problem will surface again, usually in a different ugly way.

Any problem can have multiple symptoms, but usually one cause. A symptom doesn’t cause any problem, it’s one of the by-products of a problem. If we’ll take, for example, the classical purchasing department struggle with other department requests for contracts, there are many symptoms and one cause. Purchasing struggle is not the cause. It’s just one symptom. The same as the struggle that HR & Legal has with processing contracts in the pace the business requires is a symptom of the same problem. 

One common way to find a root cause is the five whys method (https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_5W.htm). This method focuses on the elements that participants in the problem domain and the processes they are following. Regretfully, most of the root causes hide in the bi-directional fabric that connects elements. The behavior that the element takes and the processes they are following are most of the time a result of an issue in the connecting fabric. The elements’ behavior and processes are symptoms. 

Since we are following reductionism we are getting to the lower person or process in the analysis and making it the root cause, but most of the time it’s not. How to find the root cause? Start with the 5 whys, but every time that you find an element that “cause” a problem gets a deep understanding of with whom and how this element interacts. If you’ll find that there is a problem with the underline fabric of connection, switch your focus to the fabric and try to find out if there is a lower level of connections that can cause the problem. For example, many times the root cause is a policy that was set up to resolve one issue but created a new one.

The lower level of the fabric that has a potential issue, is probably the cause of the problem. If you can’t find any issues in the fabric, keep on focusing on the element of the system. Sometimes the root cause is a process or certain element in the process, but this is not as common as issues in the underline fabric.

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