All Papers

Journal Papers

2015 - Solving "Locked into a System" Problems with Root Cause Analysis

This invited paper PDF was published in the Spanda Journal in a special issue on "Systemic Change" in June 2015.

Presently civilization finds itself “locked into a system” and unable to solve difficult large-scale social problems like over-population, environmental sustainability, recurring wars, and excessive concentration of wealth. Problem solvers, whether they are in NGOs, academia, or government, are unable to reliably effect systemic change on problems of this class. Why is this?

We know from Newton’s third law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect. From this arises the Law of Root Causes: All problems arise from their root causes. Therefore the reason problem solvers are unable to solve problems of this class is that popular solutions do not resolve root causes. They instead attempt to resolve intuitively attractive intermediate causes, which guarantees solution failure. Unless the laws of physics change there can be no other explanation.

To rectify this situation a comprehensive standard approach to solving problems of this class is proposed. This consists of three tools borrowed from the business world: root cause analysis, process driven problem solving, and model based analysis. The article presents the principles behind the tools and the tools themselves, followed by a sample application of the tools to the most pressing problem of our time: the environmental sustainability problem.



2010 - Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem

This paper PDF was published in the System Dynamics Review in January 2010.

The paper attempts to explain why conventional approaches to solving the sustainability problem aren't working. The conventional approach is Classic Activism. The paper describes how the problem solving process of Classic Activism works, where its fatal flaws are, and how that could be easily fixed. How? By switching to Root Cause Analysis.

Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequential subproblems, (1) How to overcome change resistance and (2) How to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack.

A simulation model shows that in problems of this type the social forces favoring resistance will adapt to the forces favoring change. If change resistance is high this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling from ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From this we conclude that systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first. An example of how this might be done is presented.



Conference Papers

2019 - Process-driven Problem Solving with Root Cause Analysis: Adapting powerful business tools to fit the sustainability problem

This paper PDF was prepared for the Earth System Governance conference in Oaxaca, Mexico on November 6 to 8, 2019 and presented at the conference by Montserrat Koloffon. The paper reports on Thwink's research in general, including the Truth Literacy Training study, which has favorable results. The report closes with a proposal to add a sixth research lens, Problem Solving Processes. This paper was later revised and submitted to the ESG journal.

Two of the most powerful problem-solving tools in the business world are process-driven problem solving and root cause analysis. These tools are routinely used to solve difficult problems of any type, with a track record of astounding success. However, there’s a catch. The tools have only been applied to business and technical problems. They have never been applied to social problems, such as sustainability.

This paper serves as a progress report on the research results of, which has been attempting since 2001 to adapt these tools to fit social problems. The result is the System Improvement Process (SIP), a generic process designed from scratch to solve difficult large-scale social problems of any type.

At the heart of SIP lies a systematic approach for using root cause analysis to find the main root causes of a problem and the high leverage points for resolving those root causes, using subproblem decomposition, social force diagrams, and system dynamics feedback loop simulation modeling. Solution elements are then designed to push on the high leverage points. The effect is fairly predictable, since the simulation models can roughly predict, on a qualitative or quantitative bases, how the system will respond to focused efforts to push on the high leverage points.

Research results consist of SIP, a preliminary analysis, a large body of descriptive material, a paper on Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem, and just this year, preliminary studies on the effectiveness of a solution element called Truth Literacy Training.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this body of work is it represents a new paradigm for achieving successful earth system governance. This new way of thinking begins with the premise that “All causal problems arise from their root causes.” Current problem-solving approaches contain no concept of finding and resolving root causes, which appears to explain the poor results to date on solving difficult systemic problems like climate change and achieving the UN SDGs.



2012 - Solving the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis

This paper. PDF is jargon free and an easy read since its target audience is all serious environmentalists. Scott Durlacher presented the paper at the Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Portland, Oregon, US on August 1, 2012.

Countless solutions to the sustainability problem have been tried over the last forty years. While there have been some small successes, the overall problem remains unsolved. The global ecological footprint is at 50% overshoot and rising, with no credible solution in sight. Why is this?

Because popular solutions do not resolve root causes. Root cause analysis has worked spectacularly well for business problems. So why can’t it work for public interest problems?

All problems arise from their root causes. For example, consider the autocratic ruler problem. The root cause of despicable autocratic rulers like kings, warlords, and dictators was that there was no easy way for an oppressed population to replace a bad ruler with a good one. Democracy resolved the root cause with addition of the voter feedback loop. If you’ve spent decades trying to solve a problem and have failed, then the only possible reason is failure to resolve root causes.

This paper presents the results of a seven year root cause analysis of the complete sustainability problem. A formal problem solving process was developed specifically for this problem. Process execution identified four main subproblems. This is critical. The right decomposition can change a problem from insolvable to solvable, because you’re no longer trying to solve multiple subproblems simultaneously without realizing it.

For each subproblem the analysis found a main root cause, a high leverage point for resolving the root cause, and one or more solution elements for pushing on the high leverage point.

The key solution element is Common Property Rights. This is a systemic approach to sustainable management of ecosystem services in a generic, efficient, self-replicating manner. Common Property Rights are the mirror image of Private Property Rights, so they promise to be just as generic, efficient, and self-replicating.



Thwink Papers

2005 - The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace

This paper PDF was written in a paper style format due to its use of a simulation model. It was never met to be published in a peer reviewed journal. Instead, it was designed to be easily read by the non-specialist.

Over the years this has been the most influential single publication on the entire website, by far. The paper, using a simple simulation model that most readers can follow, lifts the veil on how the world's democratic political systems really work. They don't. They are too easily exploited by powerful special interests, notably large for-profit corporations. How do they do it? Why do the exploiters have an inherent advantage that those working for the common good have been unable to counter? What can be done to solve this rather important problem? How does the Dueling Loops model explain the left/right political spectrum, the one that appears in all democracies?

The answers are all there in the paper.

Most effort on solving the sustainability problem focuses on its technical side: the proper practices that must be followed to be sustainable. But surprisingly little effort addresses why most of society is so strenuously resisting adopting those practices, which is the change resistance or social side of the problem.

This paper presents a root cause analysis of the change resistance part of the problem using a simulation model. The model shows the main source of change resistance lies in a fundamental structure called The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. This consists of a race to the bottom among politicians battling against a race to the top. Due to the inherent (and well hidden) advantage of the race to the bottom, it is the dominant loop most of the time, as it is now. As long as it remains dominant, resistance to solving sustainability problems will remain so high they are insolvable.

The analysis has, however, uncovered a tantalizing nugget of good news. There is a promising high leverage point in this structure that has never been tried. If problem solvers could unite and push there with the proper solutions, it appears the change resistance side of the problem would be solved in short order and the Sustainability Revolution would begin.


Unpublished papers for reference

2021 - (In Progress) Adding a change resistance layer to integrated system models using root cause analysis and problem decomposition

This paper PDF is in progress and will be submitted to the System Dynamics Review. It extends a previous paper, Change Resistance as the Crux, which found that systemic change resistance is the crux of the environmental sustainability problem and must be solved first, by resolving the root causes of that resistance. The first draft is done. We are now editing the paper and getting feeback. Here is the Vensim model used in the paper.

Inspired by the iconic World2 and World3 system dynamics models, why has a long series of increasingly sophisticated integrated system models (ISMs), such as Threshold21, DICE, and iSDG, failed to lead to successful solution of the environmental sustainability problem? The paper proposes the main reason is these models suffer from a boundary problem, by excluding the critical component of political system change resistance. To begin the conversation for filling this gap, the paper presents a submodel to demonstrate how a change resistance layer can be added to an ISM, using World3 as an example. Scenario policy changes now go through the layer, which provides the necessary resistance. The use of root cause analysis and problem decomposition to create an effective layer is described.



2020 - (Rejected) Root cause analysis as a foundational tool for sustainability science

This paper PDF was submitted to the Sustainability Science journal on October 8, 2020. It was rejected. Using their feedback we have revised it and resubmitted on December 13, 2020. Two days later it was rejected.

The interesting aspects of this paper are the nine laws of root cause analysis, comparison of a project that extracted "lean production" from The Toyota Production System to the System Improvement Process (SIP), an introducti0n to social force digrams, and the Broken Political System Problem. The paper also covers topics many of our papers have covered, like the need to use root cause analysis to analyze the sustainability problem and SIP.

Despite immense attention from scholars and others, solution strategies have failed to address the sustainability challenge, particularly the environmental pillar. We propose the central reason is that due to the extreme dynamic complexity of the problem it cannot be solved without root cause analysis (RCA), which was not used to develop past solutions. While RCA has long been a core tool for solving difficult business/engineering problems, application to social problems remains hindered because no suitable version of the tool exists for difficult social system problems, which differ radically from non-social problems.

How then can RCA be adapted to solve difficult social problems, particularly environmental sustainability? To address that question our research iteratively developed an RCA-based process for difficult social problems, while simultaneously applying the process to the environmental sustainability problem and developing what we found to be the fundamental laws of RCA. We conclude this adaption can be accomplished by any RCA-based process incorporating these laws in a tightly integrated manner and offer suggestions for further research.



2020 - (Rejected) A Gentle Inquiry on How to Elevate the Earth System Governance Science and Implementation Plan to High Process Maturity

This paper PDF was submitted to the Earth System Governance journal on February 6, 2020. It was rejected but is retained on this page because it contains interesting material. The PDF includes small improvement made since submission.

The paper is based on an earlier paper presented at the annual Earth System Governance conference in November 2019. The conference paper presented a novel approach to solving the sustainability problem (using the three tools of process-driven problem solving, root cause analysis, and model driven analysis) as well as a study that offers early empirical evidence the approach can work. The approach differs radically from traditional approaches and is based on adapting well-known, powerful business/engineering tools to fit social problems, for the first time. This generated strong interest at the conference, which led to the journal version of the paper.

The business/engineering world routinely solves hugely difficult large-scale system problems, while social scientists struggle to do the same. Why the difference? Starting from that interdisciplinary perspective, this article explores why successful Earth System Governance (ESG) has been so impossibly hard to achieve, and concludes that if we have an open mind and are willing to borrow and adapt, then achieving successful ESG is realistically possible.

The article explains why the difference, identifies the gap to fill to close the difference, fills the gap with an innovative problem-solving process, and applies the process. Two notable process outputs, low political truth literacy as the main root cause of systemic change resistance and the Truth Literacy Training solution element, are presented. The article ends with a proposal, a look at a similar core process change, thoughts on governance, and suggestions for further research.

On May 13, 2020 the paper was rejected. From our point of view, the single referee could not understand the many new concepts, and so mentally rejected the new paradigm the paper represented, listed over ten problems with the paper based on assumptions that were not true, strongly denounced the paper, and listed no positive qualities. The associate editor handling the submission concluded that the paper cannot be reworked for resubmission.

This is a form of new paradigm change resistance, and is a completely different reaction to this research from what we got at the November 2019 conference, so we are confident we are going in the right direction. Plus we showed the paper to a different associate editor at the journal before submitting and he strongly liked it, especially the study results. As he said about the rejection, perhaps we were unlucky with the choice of reviewer and editor.

Apparently not all "gentle inquiries" work! Smile

Now we face the task of rewriting the paper with the proposal and Earth System Governance material removed, and submitting to another journal. We are leaving the paper available on this page for the time being, since it's the most current complete summary of the Thwink research and we have referred many people to it.