terça-feira, 24 de maio de 2011

Are You a Good Problem Solver?

Are You a Good Problem Solver?

Improve your skills by moving from a people-centric process to a principle-based one

By Dean L. Gano

In 50 Words Or Less

  • Traditional problem-solving strategies work by chance, not by design, because they are people centric and subjective.
  • Principle-based approaches, on the other hand, provide unbiased details and more informed solutions.
  • A look back at the history of traditional problem-solving strategies can help develop new, effective methods.
If you are like most people, you probably think you are a pretty good problem solver and have a good overall understanding of problem-solving practices. Yet, because you are reading this article, you also understand the value of continuous learning to improve your effectiveness.
Throughout history, people have used various strategies to solve event-type problems with varying results. Unfortunately, traditional problem-solving strategies—such as the fishbone diagram and the five whys—work by chance, not by design, mainly because they are people centric and subjective, rather than principle based and objective. Consequently, individuals or stakeholders may walk away from the table feeling satisfied but having an ineffective solution.
In contrast, principle-based approaches provide unbiased details and, therefore, more informed solutions. Principles, by definition, are laws that work the same every time, regardless of the user or observer, while people-centric processes are subject to interpretation and individual perspectives.
So why are the most accepted problem-solving strategies people centric, and how can we change that tradition?
To find the answer, you need to review some traditional problem-solving strategies and what history teaches us about them. Then, examine how new concepts, with help from past teachings, can improve the problem-solving process.

Traditional strategies

The basic approach to problem solving, discussed throughout history—from Buddha1 to present time—is causal observation. Sometimes referred to as "street smarts," this strategy calls for observing an environment with an eye on cause-and-effect relationships. For example, if you see smoke, you know there may be a fire because you understand the set of causes associated with fire.
While causal observation serves us well, there are no accepted principles of causation to actually guide us in using this strategy. Instead, we use other strategies, including these five:
1. Linear thinking: Similar to a row of falling dominos, when you simply ask why, why, why—similar to the five whys method—you believe A caused B, B caused C and C caused D.2 Somewhere at the end of this causal chain is a magical single cause that started everything—the root cause.3
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas taught the fallacy of this strategy when he proposed that, "Potency cannot reduce itself to act." Or, as he clarified with this example: "The copper cannot become a statue by its own existence," meaning it requires the conditional cause of the copper’s existence and the actions of a sculptor.4 Unfortunately, this simple and important observation has not been understood or incorporated into everyday thinking, and most people continue to see the world linearly.
2. Categorization: Categorizing causes is a common event-type problem-solving strategy. Instead of identifying the actions and conditions of each effect, this strategy places causes into a predefined box, which implies some causal information. Categorical schemes—such as fishbone diagrams, Management Oversight and Risk Tree5 and cause trees of every kind6—prescribe a hierarchical set of causal factors based on the reality of one person or a group.7
Using a tree of causal factors—not causes—that usually start with the categories of manpower, machinery, materials, methods and environment, these methods provide a list with subcategories and sub-subcategories. These lists, which range from one page to several, often claim to include all the possible causal factors governing human activities.
The stated goal of these methods is to find the root cause. This is accomplished by asking whether the problem encompasses any of the causal factors on the predefined list. If any correlations are found, the stakeholders discuss them and vote on which causal factors are the root causes. Solutions are then applied to the root causes.
Some of these methods are bold enough to provide predefined solutions for the problem. While this method provides some structure to the problem-solving process, it is not principle based and creates many other problems.
In addition to what Aquinas taught about every effect having at least two causes, as early as the fifth century B.C., Buddhist writings reveal, "As a net is made up of a series of knots, so everything in the world is connected by a series of knots."8
At the heart of this observation is a fundamental principle that all causes are part of a complex infinite set of causes, yet this simple observation is ignored when using prescribed hierarchical problem-solving strategies.
Buddha went on to say that duality and categorization are simple-minded constructs that ignore the reality of causal relationships.9 For example: Is it good or bad that the lion eats the gazelle? Neither, because it is an event consisting of many complex and interactive causal relationships.
Using the duality of good or bad and right or wrong simply puts the problem into a category and ignores the causal relationships of the event. This strategy is part of a larger, simplistic strategy, suggesting that if you can categorize something, you can implement standard solutions. For example, if something is bad, you must act against it. If something is good, you should revel in it. If the training is inadequate, you can make it better, but inadequate is not an actionable cause.
Categorical strategies may have worked fine in the past, but in today’s world, understanding the causal relationships of significant events can make the difference between extinction and survival. This applies not only to businesses, but also to people’s lives and species’ survival.
As in the causal observation strategy, however, categorizing is at the core of pattern recognition, which is a fundamental biological process built into the genome of higher life forms. Therefore, it is only natural to develop methods such as causal factor charts.
Because categorization is a natural brain process, people who use these methods think they are effective. But when asked to explain all the causal relationships of a given event, they can’t do it, although they usually have a good understanding of the main causes and may even be able to explain some of the causal relationships. At the same time, they are not able to effectively communicate them because these relationships reside in the mind, not in a tangible format that can be shared.
Categorical processes simply do not delineate causal relationships.10 When other stakeholders cannot clearly see the reasons—causal relationships—behind a decision to change or are not able to share their causal understanding of the problem, they are often reluctant to accept the proposed solutions.

Once upon a time

3. Storytelling: Throughout history, our primary form of communication has been storytelling. This strategy describes an event by relating people (the "who" elements), places (the "where" elements) and things (the "what" elements) into a linear timeframe (the "when" elements). Stories start in the past and move linearly toward the present, while cause-and-effect relationships always start with the undesirable effect (the present) and go back in time, branching into at least two causes each time we ask why.
Stories are usually void of causes and tend to leave out causal evidence. They often use categories, innuendo and symbolism to infer causal relationships. Stories, by their very nature, are often focused on human actions while ignoring the necessary conditional causes. For example, a story might tell of a fire being started by an arsonist, but it won’t mention that the cause of the fire also included the conditional sources—flammable material, a match and oxygen—and that all these causes came into play at the same point in time and space.
While conditional causes may not be important for a story to be entertaining, they are often the source of the most effective solutions to a problem because they are more easily controlled than human actions. To prevent fires, for example, you often separate the conditional causes in time and space by not allowing the fire source—match or flame—and the combustible material to be near each other at the same time.
4. Belief in a single reality: The notion of a single reality—often called the truth or common sense—is an insidious and common human strategy that holds that we all know the same thing—or at least that those in our group hold the same beliefs. As early as the 18th century, David Hume, an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, stated that people’s understanding of cause and effect is based on mental constructs unique to each observer.11
Is there a single reality we can all know? Of course not. That is a biological impossibility. No two brains think exactly alike, not even those of conjoined twins who share the same life experiences. People’s understanding of reality is as unique as everyone’s fingerprints, formed from every experience of their lives by a nervous system with limited and varied senses, and a brain that provides for an infinite set of perceptions using an endless set of strategies to establish their own truth.12
Because a standard set of principles that help define the complexity of reality has not yet been developed, people tend to use the easy button of common sense. This likely explains why those who use categorical methods believe they can create an all-inclusive causal factors chart that includes everyone’s causal reality.
The lesson from Hume and the knowledge of how the brain works is that if people are going to work together to the advantage of all, they have to abandon the notion of a single reality and find a way to create a common reality that encompasses the personal reality of each stakeholder.
Defining and using fundamental cause-and-effect principles, along with stated evidence for every cause, will lead to this common understanding because it will allow everyone’s reality to be included in the event analysis.
5. Root cause myth: This is a common strategy found in most categorical schemes. Again, because of linear thinking, the belief is that there is a root cause at the end of a cause chain, and the goal is to find it so you can remove or control it, and thus prevent the problem from recurring (which, by the way, is the core definition of a root cause).
History shows that this strategy has been around for a long time. In the 13th century, Aquinas also stated that nothing is caused by itself; every effect has a prior cause, so there must be a first (root) cause.13 As he has already taught, however, causal reality is not linear because it requires at least two causes in the form of an action and a condition.
Reality is more like Buddha’s causal net, which is similar to Figure 1; the minimum causal structure of every event is an ever-increasing set of causes—from two to four to eight to 16 to infinity—with some feedback loops included. Because there is potentially an infinite set of causes for a given event, a singular first (root) cause is not possible.
To ensure effective solutions, you must first have a clear understanding of the known causal relationships. Then—and only then—can you determine which causes, if removed or controlled, will prevent problem recurrence. The causes to which the solutions are associated are then, by definition, the root causes. Therefore, root causes are secondary to and contingent upon the solutions, not the object of your search, as the categorical processes would have you believe.

Principles of causation

With this short, historical review of human problem solving, you can see that while the great thinkers had some good ideas, the lessons of the past have not been fully incorporated into traditional problem-solving processes. What you have learned from this stroll through history will help you define some cause-and-effect principles and use them to refine the conventional elements of effective problem solving.
Some cause-and-effect principles include:
  • Causes and effects are the same thing.
  • Causes exist in an infinite continuum.
  • Each effect has at least two causes in the form of actions and conditions.
  • An effect exists only if its causes exist in the same space and timeframe.
The first principle from Buddha and Aquinas is that causes are observed as a sequence in time from effect to cause. And because you can only ask why of an effect, what was previously a cause must be referred to as an effect so you can continue to ask why. Therefore, causes and effects are the same thing, only seen from a different point in time.
The second principle from Buddha’s causal net shows that causes and effects are part of an infinite continuum of causes. There are no laws or principles that require you to stop asking why, only our own arrogance to think otherwise.
The third principle from Aquinas says each effect has at least two causes in the form of actions and conditions. While he did not require them to occur at the same point in time and space as the fourth principle states, he provided the most enlightening principle of them all, yet most people completely overlook it. This fourth principle states that an effect only exists if its causes exist in the same space and timeframe and is self-evident in Newtonian physics.

Effective problem solving

To continue to use people-centric problem-solving processes instead of principle-based strategies is unacceptable in this complicated world. Instead, use these principles to redefine the protocol for finding effective solutions to event-type problems.
At a minimum, effective event-type problem-solving should include the following actions:
  • Define the problem to include the significance or consequence to the stakeholders.
  • Define known causal relationships to include the actions and conditions of each effect.
  • Provide a graphical representation of the causal relationships to include specific action and conditional causes—no stories or categories.
  • Provide evidence to support the existence of each cause.
  • Determine whether each set of causes is sufficient and necessary to result in the effect.
  • Provide effective solutions that remove, change or control one or more causes of the event. Solutions must be shown to prevent recurrence, meet goals and objectives, be within your control and not cause other problems.
  • Implement and track the effectiveness of each solution.
In the quest for continuous improvement, you must recognize failed strategies, have the courage to abandon them, embrace better ones and forever challenge what you think you know. If enough people discover these principles and find the courage to abandon the comforts of their own reality, maybe we can actually live up to the ideal that a dedication to quality requires continuous improvement.


  1. Prinya Yogavipulya, Concise Principles of Buddhism, second edition, White Lotus Press, 1957.
  2. Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking, seventh edition, McGraw Hill, 2004, p. 112.
  3. Stanford University, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Causal Processes," http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-process, Sept. 10, 2007.
  4. Vernon J. Bourke, The Pocket Aquinas, Washington Square Press, 1960, p. 67.
  5. Paul F. Wilson, Larry D. Dell, and Gaylord F. Anderson, Root Cause Analysis: A Tool for Total Quality Management, ASQ Quality Press, 1993, p. 187.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Paul F. Wilson, Larry D. Dell and Gaylord F. Anderson, Root Cause Analysis: A Tool for Total Quality Management, ASQ Quality Press, 1993, p. 48.
  8. Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, The Teaching of Buddha, Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, 1966, p. 54.
  9. Ibid, pp. 53–64.
  10. Said Boukendour and Daniel Brissaud, "A Phenomenological Taxonomy for Systemizing Knowledge on Nonconformances," Quality Management Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2005.
  11. Bourke, The Pocket Aquinas, see reference 4.
  12. Rita Carter, Mapping the Mind, University of California Press, 1998, p. 106.
  13. John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, Prentice-Hall Inc., 1964, p. 22.

Dean L. Gano is the owner of Apollonian Publications LLC in Kennewick, WA, where he has been teaching and promoting effective event-based problem solving for more than 20 years. Gano earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and general science from Seattle University. He is a member of ASQ.

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