The degree of comfort in discovering the roots of things, cannot be taken as proof of the truth. The best we can do, and must do, is to exercise critical thinking and mental rigour, to get as close as possible to what may look at ‘the causes’. Finding culprits is easy. It is more complicated to prove that they are the sole responsible for the situation.
‘Root Cause Analysis’ is common in manufacturing processes where some discipline in this area has been established for a long time. It’s also very present in Health and Safety systems. It is far less explicit in other managerial processes in organizations, where you have sometimes the impression that people are ‘playing the music’ without being very serious in the search for ‘causes’, most likely to be the causes of a failure.
I go back all the time to the need for ‘critical thinking’. And this is a discipline, a kind of mental gym, in great part trying to avoid our mental traps. The mind tricks us all the time, and is particularly good at providing comfort. It makes easy to rationalise and justify our decisions. As an example, it tries to avoid ‘cognitive dissonance’: ‘I missed the train, I’ll be late to the concert, never mind, the first part was not that important’. Which is far more palatable than ‘What a shame, I missed the train, how stupid, I did not get the full concert’.
Most critical thinking looks like simple A,B,C on paper, but is consistently practiced badly. The most obvious example is the constant mistake of mixing up causes and correlations. In Root Cause Analysis, when exercised by not very disciplined people, I have seen many times how easy is to find correlations and then give up in rigorous thinking, soon ending in ‘having found the cause or causes’. Comfort is high, the truth slim.
Psychoanalysis was very good at digging into childhood to find ‘the causes’ of adult problems. And causes were found, indeed. Comfort was provided to some extent, because ‘having an explanation’ is in itself a good anxiolytic, regardless whether the explanation is solid or not. Solidity in psychoanalysis was high in its internal consistency (the system of psychoanalytic thinking was once described as one of those worms that one can cut in pieces and the pieces will still move) but not in its validity. In fact, psychoanalysis was born out of a Freud’s fiasco. He first thought that bringing unconscious problems to life (conscious) would be enough to produce ‘the cure’. It was not, despite his hope that he could apply what he saw that Charcot (who described the original ‘hysteria’) was doing in Paris: fantastic, almost miraculous ‘cures’ of paralysed people, who had not physical lesion. That did not work with far more complicated situations, which at that time were called ‘neurosis, a term now buried by modern Psychiatry. The digging into the past via dreams and the entire psychoanalytic approach was then born. That new ‘psychoanalytic method’ was the result of the need to create a more sophisticated system of cure. And still didn’t cure much, but this is a story for another day.
Digging, collecting data, finding causes, is necessary. It must be applied in management. It should be a standard reflection for leadership. But one has to remain restless in front of ‘obvious causes’ and always bring a healthy critical approach. Comfort is easy; the truth is slightly more complicated.