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  • Mark Newman

Make a change

Updated: Aug 8, 2019


"...of course, but which one?"

Root Causes


How can we logically work out what changes to make?


Answering this question will often require some analysis into the 'root cause' of a problem. What caused the problem in the first instance? If we can work that out then we can fix the underlying reason why the problem is occuring.


However, a problem (or "effect") may have more than one underlying reason ("cause"). Kaoru Ishikawa (in 1968) is widely credited with the introduction of "fishbone diagrams" - a diagram designed to show different categories of cause. These categories are known as the 6 M's of manufacturing; Measurement, Material, Machine, Mother Nature, Man Power, and Method. A particular problem may have one or more causes under various categories and depicting these in a fishbone diagram can be helpful in understanding its root causes. Different categories have been suggest for functions other than manufacturing such as the 7 P's for marketing and the 5 S's for Sales.


Problems can be circular


However, the fishbone diagram suggests a linear causality where causes result in effects, but not the other way around. The idea that effects may negatively feedback to a cause (i.e. either sustaining or making the cause worse) was one of the ideas set out by Peter Senge (1990) in his popular book, "The Fifth Discipline". Senge reminded us that problems may be circular in nature creating "vicious cycles". For example, staff morale may be poor, which results in lower product quality, which results in more customer returns, which in turn worsens staff morale. Senge proposed that vicious cycles need to be substituted by "virtuous cycles". Using our simple example, staff morale is good, which results in higher product quality, which results in fewer customer returns, which in turn helps to maintain staff morale.


This idea helps us understand that there may not be simple cause and effect relationships in the problems we are dealing with, but there may may be a system of issues which relate to each other with positive or negative feedback loops. Analysing these causal loops is often essential to understand how problems are recurring in an organisation, but this only gets us to the first step. The next question is what to do about it? How do we intervene in a way that stimulates a transformation from vicious to virtuous cycles?


Not all changes make sense


In our simple example, a number of alternative interventions could be envisaged but not all may work or make sense. For example, we could prohibit any customer returns of faulty products. This way the staff will be protected from the knowledge that they are producing rubbish products but of course, apart form the questionable legality of such a policy, the company will soon be out of business! A better intervention is one where the staff morale and product quality are dealt with holistically. That may require some open conversations and new ways of recognising teams for good quality products, and ensuring that a positive feedback loop is established.


Analysing causal problem networks for a particular area of a business, identifying candidate solutions (improvements or transformations), deciding which ones to do and in which order can be a complicated process. But visualising the journey from problem space to business outcomes is what must nonetheless be done before any change and the case for investment can be made.


Transformation is a complicated journey


Another simple model designed using the ASSIST® solution is shown below. It helps to illustrate that there are a complicated set of relationships that need to be managed between scope, issue networks (including vicious cycles), transformations, objective networks (including virtuous cycles), performance measurement, and business outcomes.


Transformation Benefits

Find out more


If you would like to discuss how the ASSIST® solution can integrate your particular strategic analyses & outcomes, operating model design, and portfolio optimisation, (or are a consultant working in these areas) then please let us know


You can read more about ASSIST® here

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