Causal Chain

A causal chain is the path of influence running from a root cause to problem symptoms. Each link in the chain repressents something in the real world. At one end of the chain is the root cause. At the other end is the symptoms it causes. The many links between the two ends are the intermediate causes. How this works is explained in this diagram:Causal chain diagram

This is the solution causal chain present in all problems. Popular approaches to solving the sustainability problem see only what's above the dashed line. If you're working on a difficult problem, you've got a superficial view of the problem. All you can see is what's obvious: the black arrows. This leads to the Superficial Soluitons Trap of using superficial solutions to push on low leverage points in order to resolve the intermediate causes of the problem. (This is exactly what classic activists are doing now.)

Popular solutions are superficial because they fail to see below the dashed line into the fundamental layer, where the complete causal chain runs to root causes. It's an easy trap to fall into because it intuitively seems that popular solutions like renewable energy, strong regulations, conservation, recycling and so forth should solve the sustainability problem. But they cannot, because they don't resolve the root causes.

If you take an analytical approach, root cause analysis allows you to penetrate the fundamental layer to find the well hidden red arrow. Further analysis finds the blue arrow. Fundamental solution elements are then developed to create the green arrow which solves the problem.

To more clearly show the superficial and fundamental layers, here's another diagram:Diagram

Click the image to see the causal chain links present in all problems. Click it again to hide the links. Each one of those links represents an entity in the real world that has a cause and effect. Something caused it to change. And once it changes, that has an effect on the next link in the chain. This is the classic systems thinking concept of cause and effect. Everything in a system is connected to one or more other things in a manner that results in astounding complexity and behavior.

The diagram illustrates all of the key concepts of root cause analysis. The deeper you go in your analysis the harder the chain is to see. That's why it helps to use a few tools. Of course, it takes a little more than a mouse....

Why causal chains are important

The concept of causal chains lies at the very heart of the paradigm. This leads to:

Our Fundamental Principle

The only way to solve a difficult problem
is to resolve its root causes.

The fastest way to implement this principle is to develop the ability to see causal chains everywhere. Everytime something interesting occurs, ask yourself: Why did that occur? What was the root cause? Follow the causal chain relentlessly until you get all the way to the root cause.

It won't be long before you're asking the “What is the root cause?” question about the sustainability problem or whatever big problems you're working on.

The important thing is to always visualize a causal chain running from symptoms to root causes. Don't direct your solutions to the intermediate causes, since they will be superficial solutions that cannot possibly solve the problem because they do not resolve the root causes. Instead, do what Henry David Thoreau implored us to do:

Strike at the root !

Solution Chain

By extending a causal chain all the way to the solution of a problem, we arrive at a solution chain. A solution chain is the path of influence running from solutions to problem symptoms. In your analysis, first you find the causal chain of a problem. That gives you the root cause. Working backward from that, then you find the solution chain. How this works in our approach to problem solving is illustrated below.

Solution chain and principles mapped to SIP

From the viewpoint of the System Improvement Process the upper four blue ovals are the causal chain for each subproblem. All eight ovals are the subproblem's solution chain. Solving the complete sustainability problem requires a high quality analysis and solution convergence effort that results in building four robust solution chains.

The five principles are discussed in the glossary entry on the Scientific Method, in the section on An alternative paradigm that could possibly work.

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Root Cause Analysis

The concept of a causal chain lies at the heart of the poweful tool of root cause analysis. Once you start thinking in terms of causal chains, problems will look totally different. You will realize that most who have entered the fray are working on the superficial layer, because that's all they can see. But because you are thinking in causal chains, you can see both the superficial and fundamental layers. This forces your questions, probes, challenges, and conclusions to go much deeper, hopefully all the way down to the root causes.

Feedback Loop

What makes complex systems really complex is their feedback loops. A system's most imporant causal chains run in circles, known as feedback loops.