Cause vs Symptom

March 2015 · 2 minute read

I was listening to an audio book today and heard discussion of the 5 Whys as a means of identifying a root cause. This process is an iterative interrogation of a problem and its causes verifying over and over that the identified cause of the problem is in fact the root cause.

I realised I generally follow a similar pattern but from a few angles. For me asking people what caused a problem generally bundles up the persons own interpretations of the problem as part of that response. This is why the 5 whys approach holds promise as it is working through the perceived causes with the first few attempts moving to the more important causes. This can be hard to face sometimes as it often leads back to personal accountability.

My focus has always been symptom or cause and I often don’t start with the problem. Given there’s often a lot of drama caught up in the problem (people pointing fingers and blaming) I often like to start at the solutions.

IT people have a gut reflex of how to solve problems and just as often they don’t really think about what the solution is revealing, they just like solving problems. The question I then put to them is why is that the solution and what is it solving? Working from the solution we start to identify are you solving the root cause or a symptom. If it’s a symptom what is the cause of that symptom?

When a person knows they are at fault for causing a problem they often subconsciously skirt around the problem but working backwards from a solution people often find it much harder to conceal.

The best part of this approach is that if there are multiple solutions that can be because a root cause has multiple symptoms and working back from those multiple points leading to one source cause strengthens that it is the most urgent issue to address and the one having the greatest impact.

Another benefit of a chain of symptom solutions can be that you sometimes need short term fixes to solve the immediate symptoms and long term solutions to avoid any further problems.