Understanding problem causes is a significant aspect of problem solving. While we often refer to the causes of problems, there are many different types of causes and we need to be clear on what each different type of cause means. There are possible causes (sometimes referred to as potential causes), prevalent causes, fundamental possible causes and then the cause all problem solvers are typically most interested in, the root cause. Depending on how a problem is framed, it can have more than a single root cause, but in most cases the root cause is a singular cause.
The root cause is the underlying cause of the problem. It is where the problem “grows from” and which, if removed, prevents the problem from recurring. It is more than a prevalent possible cause, though such causes represent important milestones along the journey to discovering what the root cause of the problem is. In general, we need to do some digging to find the root cause, and this investigation relies entirely on concrete evidence. There are various techniques one could use to facilitate this process, of which the simplest and most effective is the 5-Why technique.
Root cause analysis tends to dominate conversations about problem solving, and when people are asked about problem solving techniques, their first answer is typically to mention a root cause analysis technique. Root cause analysis is however but only one of the steps towards solving a problem. So, what makes the root cause so important? The answer lies in the definition of what a root cause is. If the problem is thought of as a troublesome weed, and the root cause represents its roots, then elimination of the weed requires that we dig it out at the roots. This is done by developing and implementing an appropriate solution to our problem. Without knowing what our root cause is, we cannot develop a solution, and so we cannot solve our problem.
This seems self evident, yet many problem solvers dive straight into possible solutions without taking the time to define the problem clearly and to find the root cause. The solutions developed are then often not solutions at all, they only break the stem or remove some of the leaves, and the weed then quickly grows back.
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