Why You Should Work Your Problems Backward

Mark Galley

Our lives, the work we do and the world we live in all move forward through time. Problems we face also happen forward through time. But the investigation of a problem builds backward through time. Why is that? An injury, production outage or equipment failure is the last domino to fall in the chain of events. Those negative consequences are the end of the problem, and the starting point for the investigation. The details of how an issue occurred are found by reversing and analyzing the chain of events.

An investigation, also known as an analysis, breaks a problem down into its parts. Those parts can be organized in different ways. One way is using a chronology or timeline. Another is causality or cause and effect. Both are important, but they are different.

The timeline is when things happened. The causes are why they happened.

The timeline is also called a sequence of events. It is a convenient way to organize the details of an issue. Every piece of information from the incident is put in chronological order. Information on the timeline can be from six seconds ago, six days ago, six months ago or six years ago. It is all organized by time. History or context for an incident, what people sometimes call background information, can be included in the timeline. A piece of equipment may have been installed in 1999 and modified two different times in 2001 and 2004. Those details go on the timeline. There are a variety of different formats for making a timeline. In our ThinkReliability approach, we use a three-column table to capture date, time and description. Time flows down the page from oldest to most recent. Our free Cause Mapping® template in Microsoft Excel includes a timeline worksheet.

Linear vs. Nonlinear

A timeline is a useful tool, but there is a caveat. A timeline is a straight line. Every entry is organized chronologically, so timelines are always linear. Looking at only the chronology makes a problem appear linear. But problems aren’t linear. Problems are nonlinear. A problem is a confluence of events that came together in a particular way to produce the negative consequences. Each chain of events, what we call a causal path, connects at different points to produce an incident. Revealing those different connections is what a thorough investigation does. We’re able to show individuals and companies how applying a solution to more than one causal path provides an additional layer of protection to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. Our Cause Mapping method shows organizations how to mitigate risk in different ways. A more detailed cause-and-effect analysis doesn’t require more solutions, it simply provides more options to select better solutions.

A cause-and-effect analysis also begins as a straight line, but it splits at different points as the investigation progresses. To find the different causal paths within a problem, the investigation must move backward. Moving forward through time makes the incident appear linear. A linear approach is appealing because it seems simple, but it is incomplete. Solutions will be overlooked. By asking why each cause happened, the investigation unfolds backward through time. Why questions reveal those cause-and-effect connections.

Visual Cause-and-Effect Analysis

A Cause Map diagram is a problem-solving and root cause analysis tool that visually lays out cause and effect. Your ability to clearly diagram the cause-and-effect relationships within a problem changes the way a group communicates detail and allows access to solutions that would otherwise be missed. Clients tell us our Cause Map diagrams have improved the way their frontline people, technical leads and management teams communicate.

The timeline and the Cause Map diagram are both important, and we teach people how to use both. The sequence of events is essential to accurately explain the cause-and-effect relationships within an issue. But chronology and causality are different. There are entries on a timeline that are not causally related to the problem, which is why a timeline and a Cause Map diagram should be built separately. If they are combined, the timeline dominates—making the incident seem linear. Important cause-and-effect relationships (and solutions) will remain hidden in that format.

Download our free Cause Mapping template in Microsoft Excel to see how we document a complete investigation. We encourage you to experiment with this approach of a timeline and a Cause Map diagram on one of your problems. Compare it to what you are doing now and contact us if you need help. In addition, we can walk you through the analysis of one of your problems to illustrate the importance of distinguishing the difference between chronology and cause and effect.

Need help getting started? Attend one of our free webinars, an online short course or one of our online workshops.

Register for our upcoming Cause Mapping Root Cause Analysis Online Public Workshop

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