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  • Writer's pictureThe Just Audit team

RCA Part 8: Don't stop at a single cause

Great organisations recognise that problems are never the result of a single cause. They deep dive into a problem to reveal all the contributing factors.

When asked to describe the difference between himself and a typical person, Albert Einstein explained that the typical person, faced with the problem of finding a needle in a haystack, would stop when the needle had been located. But Einstein said that he would tear through the entire haystack looking for all possible needles.

Often, organisations believe that great problem-solving is all about finding that one, all-encompassing root cause. The misconception is that if they can uncover this single root cause and eliminate it, this will prevent the problem from recurring. This might work temporarily but it isn’t a water-tight, long-term or visionary approach.

Great organisations know that there is never one root cause, but many that combine simultaneously. They know if they address just one cause (no matter how dominant it may appear) they will not address the supporting circumstances and risks that could allow this event to continue to crop up elsewhere in some form. It’s all about having situations with several moving parts where a change in any (or all) of the parts can create unpredictable results. Using the image above, the issue isn’t fully resolved by halting the falling dominos!

In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book ‘The Tipping Point’ he begins his discussion by looking at the episode of a major public health epidemic, a resurgence of syphilis, that rocked the US city of Baltimore at the end of the 20th century. Media outlets had blamed the epidemic on one root cause or another, but Gladwell’s research highlighted four singular but co-dependent causes.

  1. Firstly, the obvious, namely that the disease existed in many crowded areas of the inner city

  2. Secondly, this was a period when drug use sky-rocketed in the city, leading to behaviour that supported the spread of the disease

  3. Thirdly, 1995 saw deep and wide-ranging federal cuts in medical services, meaning that, on average, an infected person was carrying the disease for three to four times longer before receiving treatment

  4. Finally, in the mid-1990s Baltimore famously set about destroying two huge 1960s public housing projects in the city, one in the east and one in the west. This resulted in an unprecedented migration and mix of the city’s population

Uncovering just one of these causes and applying an isolated solution would not have been enough to stop the epidemic. You need to recognise the co-existence of all four to address the genuine root causes of the epidemic.

In a business application, imagine working on improving attrition and, with minimum research, discovering that workers wanted a pay rise. That would be fine on a short-term basis. However if further digging revealed that investment in training and improvements in health and safety were second and third in the list of employee issues, then resolving all three would provide a stronger and more robust solution. Don’t stop at a single cause – it could create more problems. In this instance, you’d have a higher staff bill without resolving the main issue of staff turnover.

Ask yourself:

Have you considered that your problem is likely to have multiple, interdependent causes?

If you apply just a single solution how long will that be effective for?

Key point:

Effective problem solvers gather and manage data in a structured way, opening their thinking as to how seemingly small and unconnected causes coexist to create events that are, on occasion, multi-layered and wide-ranging.

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