The Law of Root Causes

The law is quite short: All problems arise from their root causes. When it comes to solving difficult problems this is the most powerful law you can have in your toolbox, because everything else follows from this foundational law.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The first true scientist was Aristotle (384-322 BC), who invented the rules of formal logic. This was a tremendous contribution, because people could now reason correctly for the first time. For example, consider this classic syllogism:

1. All men are mortal.

2. Socrates is a man.

3. Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Is that conclusion justified? Before Aristotle no one could say. But once Aristotle developed his system of formal logic using syllogisms like the one above, the answer was obvious it was sound because it fit a known pattern: modus ponens. This rule of logic works like this:

1. If A is true, then B is true.

2. A is true.

3. Therefore B is true.

Aristotle's writing covered a multitude of subjects, including physics, biology, ethics, philosophy, and government. Throughout this string of work ran the golden thread of correct reasoning. HOW do we know something is true? The writings demonstrated over and over that the truth could be found only by empiricism: the theory that all knowledge is derived from self-experience, particularly observation and experimentation. Aristotle's writing revolved around collection of the right data and use of razor sharp logic to draw sound conclusions from the data and prior conclusions. This so advanced humanity's ability to find new truths that the Encyclopedia Britannica states that "Aristotle was the first genuine scientist in history... every scientist is in his debt." (1)

That includes Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote in notes to himself wrote this slogan to follow: "Plato is my friend. Aristotle is my friend. But my greatest friend is truth."

In his pursuit of the truth about the most basic phenomenon of the entire universe, motion, Newton applied empiricism and logic diligently. So diligently, in fact, that in eight short years, from 1679 to 1687, he turned his interest in motion into what instantly became the most influential work in all of modern science: "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy."

More commonly known as the Principia, the work stated the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. Using those laws as axioms, Newton then did what Aristotle had done before him: he methodically applied his foundation to a host of earthly and heavenly phenomena. The Principia explained how the moon caused the tides, why Kepler's law of planetary motion (planets follow an elliptical orbit around the sun) was true, why the earth must be a slightly flattened sphere due to its rotation (instead of a perfect sphere), calculated what the approximate speed of sound in air must be, and so on. In particular Newton explained why the planets revolved around the sun and the moon around the earth. There was no occult magic. There was only the laws of science. Discover them and you can explain anything.

This new viewpoint shattered prevailing wisdom and ignited the smoldering growth of science into the flames of the Scientific Revolution. This led one hundred and twenty years later to the Industrial Revolution of 1800. Today, over two hundred years after that, it may lead to the Sustainability Revolution. But only if humanity can solve the sustainability problem in time. Otherwise the next revolution will be Industrial Collapse or whatever horrific term emerges as it happens.

So how can we turn the tides of history toward sustainability instead of collapse?

By standing on the shoulders of giants.

Deriving the Law of Root Causes

Despite his towering achievements, Newton was a modest fellow. Writing to Robert Hooke in a letter in 1676, he wrote: "What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." This referred not only to Rene Descartes and Robert Hooke, but to Kepler, Galileo, Euclid, and many more, including Plato and Aristotle. Let us now pause to drink deeply of the nectar these giants have to offer scientists of the twenty first century.

Amazingly enough, to derive the Law of Root Causes only two prior laws are needed: Aristotle's modus ponens and Newton's Third Law of Motion.

The Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This can be restated as every cause has an effect and every effect has a cause.

Science consists of discovering cause and effect relationships, relevant facts, and applying that knowledge. This paradigm began with Aristotle, who laid the foundation for all of science with this fundamental principle: "A prerequisite for knowing anything is understanding why it is as it is—in other words, grasping it primary cause." (2) Let's call this Aristotle's Law of Knowing Anything.

For the purpose of solving difficult problems and focusing our efforts where they will be most productive, Aristotle's primary cause is best called a root cause. A root cause is the deepest cause in a causal chain that can be resolved. If the deepest cause cannot be resolved, it's not a real problem. It's the way things are. A root cause is defined as having these characteristics:

1. It is clearly a major cause of the problem symptoms.

2. It has no productive deeper cause. The word “productive” allows you to stop asking why at some appropriate point in root cause analysis. Otherwise you may find yourself digging to the other side of the planet.

3. It can be resolved. Sometimes it’s useful to include unchangeable root causes in your model for greater understanding. These have only the first two characteristics.

4. Its resolution will not create bigger problems. Side effects must be considered.

5. There is no better root cause. All alternatives have been considered.

The first three characteristics were published in 2010 in Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem. In the spirit of continuous process improvement, two more have been added. Resolved means that the system is changed such that the root cause forces no longer exist or are acceptably low.

We know from Newton's Third Law of Motion that every effect has a cause. We also know from Aristotle's Law of Knowing Anything that everything has a primary cause, which may be called a root cause. Therefore all problems arise from their root causes.

This reasoning may be expressed as a series of two modus ponens syllogisms. Both have an equivalent conclusion. The first syllogism, from Newtons Third Law of Motion, is unquestionably true. The second syllogism, from Aristotle's Law of Knowing Anything, takes Newton's "cause" and transforms it into a more productive concept by replacing it with "root cause."

1. All effects have a cause.

2. A problem is an effect.

3. Therefore all problems have a cause.

 

1. Everything has a root cause.

2. A problem falls within the class of everything.

3. Therefore all problems have a root cause.

The last conclusion has been reworded as "All problems arise from their root causes" to emphasize that problems don't just happen. There is no occult magic or something that cannot be explained. All real problems arise from specific root causes that can be found and resolved. (3) Taking Aristotle's Law of Knowing Anything to heart, THE prerequisite for solving a problem is understanding its root cause.

Most difficult problems have multiple root causes. For simplicity this article often says "root cause" instead of "root cause(s)." When a problem has multiple root causes, all must be resolved to solve the problem.

Implications

Several important implications stem from this law. If all problems arise from their root causes, then:

1. The only way to solve a difficult problem is to resolve its root causes. This principle is discussed in the glossary entry for root cause.

2. If solutions are failing, it can only be because they do not resolve root causes or the problem is insolvable. It cannot be due to anything else.

How do you determine if a problem is insolvable? That's automatically done as part of root cause analysis, since one of the characteristics of a root cause is it can be resolved. Whether that's possible is easily determined by simulation or small scale testing. The hard part is not finding out whether a possible root cause can be resolved. It's finding the root cause candidate.

Civilization's attempts to solve the environmental sustainability problem have been a long, frustrating story. Five generations of solutions have failed. As this page argues, the clear reason is the solutions were not aimed at resolving specific root causes.

3. Find the root causes first. Then find solutions to resolve the root causes. This line of thinking runs counter to prevailing approaches. For proof, examine any popular solution to the environmental sustainability problem. Look for a written description of what specific root causes the solution is resolving and an analysis of why. If your experience is the same as ours, you will find none. Thwink.org has examined hundreds of organizations and thousands of articles and papers. The concept of root causes and root cause analysis is non-existent in environmentalism. This explains so much.

4. Borrow from the field of root cause analysis (RCA). RCA is the process of finding and resolving a problem's root causes. While RCA is nowhere to be seen in environmentalism, just the opposite is true for business. RCA has been adopted by a huge swath of the world's businesses in the form of processes like Six Sigma, Kaizen, NASA's Root Cause Analysis Tool, and the Toyota Production System. The most popular form, Six Sigma, is so common that: "About 53 percent of Fortune 500 companies are currently using Six Sigma, which has resulted in an estimated $427 billion of savings over the past 20 years. Utilization rises to 82 percent when you look at just the Fortune 100." (The Pros and Cons of Six Sigma, 2010)

5. All approaches to problem solving are essentially root cause analysis. Most do not use the term explicitly. But all are searching for solutions that will resolve the problem's root causes, because only solutions that resolve the root causes will work. For example, Six Sigma, the most popular root cause analysis process in the business world, rarely uses the terms root cause or root cause analysis. The concepts are so fundamental they are assumed.

Let's examine an illustrative example. The root cause analysis paradigm runs so deep in Six Sigma that one of the bibles of quality management, The Six Sigma Handbook, by Thomas Pyzdek, 2003, mentions root causes on only one of its 830 pages, page 6: "[As we drill down on a problem] at some level we reach a 'root cause,' or the most basic reason behind an effect. Black Belts and Green Belts learn numerous tools and techniques to help them identify these root causes. ... In Six Sigma work, results are known as 'Ys' and root causes are known as 'Xs.' " Thereafter the book refers to root causes as Xs, causes, sources of defects, sources of variation, etc. The Xs and Ys are Newton's causes and effects.

Notes

(1) Source of quote about Aristotle: "Aristotle was the first genuine scientist in history... every scientist is in his debt." Attributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica and widely used. For example, see the first paragraph in the Wikipedia entry for Aristotle.

(2) Source of quote by Aristotle: "A prerequisite for knowing anything is understanding why it is as it is—in other words, grasping it primary cause." From the book Magnificent Principia: Exploring Isaac Newton's Masterpiece, by Colin Pask, 2013, page 44.

(3) Concerning "All real problems arise from specific root causes that can be found and resolved."

The use of "real problems" is deliberate. Real problems have root causes that can eventually be found and resolved, such as once the cause of contagious disease was found to be germs, most contagious diseases could be avoided by minimizing the spread of germs. Non-real problems cannot be solved no matter how hard we try, because they have no root cause. Examples are how to affordably turn lead into gold, how to end all poverty (poverty is relative, not absolute), how to time travel, and how to have complete equality of wealth. The last is impossible because of the inherent variation in people's abilities, combined with Darwin's omni-present struggle for survival of the fittest.

These thoughts lead to our final quotation:

"Every real problem can and will be solved,
entirely by accurate observation and close, searching thought.”

Ernst Mach, 1838 to 1916. The quote is from his A New Sense, one of many lectures in his Popular Scientific Lectures of 1897. The translation used is from Galileo’s Commandment: 2,500 Years of Great Science Writing, edited by Edmund Bolles, 1999, page 28.

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The Grandfather of All Large-Scale Root Cause Analysis Driven Processes

This is the justly fabled Toyota Production System. This potent, highly copied process has been described at length in books like The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World's Greatest Manufacturer, by Jeffery Liker, 2004, The Elegant Solution: Toyota's Formula for Mastering Innovation, by Matthew May, 2007, and Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production, by Taiichi Ohno, 1978/1988. The process dates back to 1945, when formal application of a root cause resolution mindset to Toyota's auto production began.

In manufacturing and services, a defect is anything that displeases the customer. All problems arise from their root causes, so the best way to minimize defect is root cause analysis. That's what the Toyota Production System does, though it has evolved so far that it looks more like a total management process. But at its core lies explicit identification and elimination (or minimization) of the root causes of defects.

In the right hands the power of a root cause driven process can be phenomenal. Here's a story to prove the point:

In 1982 the General Motors auto plant in Fremont, California was GM's worst performing factory, in terms of quality and productivity. GM shut it down in February. Toyota saw this as an opportunity. Wanted to move some of their manufacturing to the US, Toyota entered into a joint partnership with GM in 1983 to reopen the plant. Toyota introduced their approach to quality management (the Toyota Production System) and retrained the workforce. These were the results: (This story and the quote below are from The Toyota Way.)

The Toyota Way - Book Cover"Full production began in 1985, and by year end 1986, [the plant] had the highest quality and productivity of any GM plant. Quality defects dropped from 12 to 1 per vehicle. Cars were assembled in half the time. Absenteeism dropped to 3% [from 20%]. Worker satisfaction and engagement soared. Operational innovation was on the rise, with employee participation over 90% and nearly 10,000 ideas implemented. Same people, same union, same equipment. Radically different outcome. All in under two years."

This spectacular success stunned the American manufacturing industry. It was not long before US companies began learning from the masters: the Toyota Production System.

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