Making Unknowns Known with Cause-and-Effect Problem Solving

Mark Galley


Cause Mapping

When a problem first happens, the details of what took place may not be clear. Problems can range from being a little confusing to completely baffling, but these unknowns are a normal part of problem solving. Unknowns are not a dead end; they’re where you start digging. Learning how to handle unknowns within a problem is a valuable career skill. It’s what technicians, mechanics and operators do every day. But they just call it figuring stuff out.

People have been tackling unknowns for centuries. It’s how agriculture, medicine, transportation and every other industry and branch of science evolved. At one point, people did not know how to make a plane fly, but the Wright brothers figured it out in 1903. Repeated trial and error revealed the causes of their failures and successes allowing them to keep improving their aircraft until they achieved powered, controlled flight.

Revealing the Structure of a Problem

Investigating a problem with unknowns is like making a map of your town. All the streets are there whether you know them all or not. For the roads you don’t know, you’ll need to conduct a survey to collect that information. The streets in your town all fit together a particular way because the town already exists. Likewise, since the problem you’re investigating has already occurred, the cause-and-effect relationships have also already happened. People shouldn’t argue about which street (cause) is the right one. They should reveal how all the streets (causes) fit together. Problem investigations should be objective, evidence-based analyses, not subjective debates. There’s an opportunity within organizations to improve this.

Some people see a problem as a tangled mess that needs a framework or categorization to provide structure. An atom, the solar system and every problem already have a structure. The analysis reveals what that structure is, which is a scientific approach. The cause-and-effect relationships are already contained within the problem. They fit together in a particular way, which is the way the incident happened. Just like the streets on a map model the streets of a city. This simple distinction acknowledges that there is an order contained inside the problem, as opposed to looking outside the problem for a particular method, tool or software to provide order. Fortunately for individuals and companies, the scientific approach is not proprietary.

Including Subject Matter Experts

One person’s unknown is another person’s known. An investigator may call a cause an unknown when they don’t have the necessary evidence, but there may be other people in the organization who have that information. This is why an investigation typically requires input from different people with different areas of expertise. It provides a more complete and accurate explanation of what happened. Subject matter experts, specialists and frontline troubleshooters become an important part of an investigation. They may explain important details about what occurred along with providing suggestions on how to prevent it.

Documenting the Knowns and Unknowns

There can be many pieces of an investigation. A diagram is a simple and effective way to organize all the different causes—both what is known and what is currently unknown. On a Cause Map™ diagram, the unknowns are labeled with question marks. These are action items to dig a little further or track down a particular piece of information. At the beginning of an investigation, the analysis may be just a few Why questions in a straight line. As information is collected and unknowns are made known, the analysis can expand into much more detail. A Cause Map diagram reveals how all the different causal paths came together to produce the incident. It’s a convenient way to document and communicate the complete explanation of an issue. It’s the platform for proposing different solution options to mitigate risks going forward.

Learn more about our method in one of our upcoming webinars, two-hour online short courses or online workshops. You can also download our free Cause Mapping® investigation template in Microsoft Excel here to try it on one of your problems. Cause and effect explain why things went well, why things went poorly and how to handle unknowns. But it takes some digging.

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