Tackling Root Cause

By Daragh O Brien
August 13, 2021
18min read
palm trees covered with fog

Tackling the root cause of issues can often be difficult when technology presents an appealing alternative. For example, Cork City Council recently unveiled a cluster of “robo-trees” as part of their Clean Air Strategy for Cork City. These artifical structures contain a type of moss that traps and consumes particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from vehicle exhausts and other sources. This is a fascinating piece of technology combining bio-engineering and Internet of Things. As a hard core nerd, I am fascinated by things like this.

But this is a good illustration of the need to be clear about the problem you are trying to solve. After all, if the objective is to reduce or remove particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicle exhausts from Cork City, tackling the root cause of the problem would surely require reducing (or eliminating) vehicles that produce particulate matter or nitrogen oxide exhaust fumes from the city.

Five Whats

An all to frequent tendency is for people to jump to a solution. This is what I call “Five Whats” solutionism. What are the five things that we must do to solve this thing? We have seen this repeated all too often in the data management space.

The answer to every failed data management initiative that tries to implement a new technology solution seems to be a new initiative for data management that uses a new technology. The painful truth, however, is that the fundamentals of data quality management and data strategy are unglamorous and are often overlooked or dismissed because a new shiny technology panacea is the preferred way to get the sponsoring manager promoted out of the area address the challenges.

I’ve written about this problem as the “Lure of the Shiny” for and as the “hidden value of unglamorous things” here.

Five Whys

Five Whys analysis on the other hand seeks to get to the core of the root causes for the quality issue being examined. The objective is to find the optimum solution that best addresses the symptom by looking up the chain of causes to find the best fix. The mantra in quality, whether it is data quality or any other area of quality, is to try and fix the problem as close to the point of cause as possible. This avoids scrap and rework and removes waste (aka cost) from your processes.

We could apply Five Whys analysis to assess why there is a high level of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides in the air in Cork City. They did something similar in respect of erosion of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC a few years ago and got an answer different to what they had originally considered to the the solution. But as everyone is asking why Cork City Council has spent €350,000 on a cluster of fake trees, it might be more useful to apply Five Whys to that question.

1) Why is Cork installing these “City Trees”?

The City Trees are being installed to improve air quality in the city because its’s crap.

2) Why is there particulate matter and nitrogen oxide in the air that needs to be removed?

Because cars and buses and trucks generate a lot of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from their exhausts and traffic in Cork city is dire and vehicles can spend a lot of time belching out fumes as they navigate through the city.

3) Why doesn’t Cork City just reduce or eliminate polluting vehicles from the city?

Because that takes time to do and can be disruptive to businesses in any city. It also just moves the problem elsewhere as people start shopping out of the city centre or avoid the city centre. Reduction or elimination is part of the solution but it’s not the full solution.

4) Why don’t they just plant lots of real trees instead?

Trees don’t filter the particulate matter as well (if at all) and they also don’t address the nitrogen oxide issues as they are primarily an efficient natural machine for turning CO2 into oxygen. And Cork City is planting trees as well (but the more trees the better!)

So.. there we have in four whys a good rationale for the use of these City Trees. But only if they are not seen as a solution in and of themselves.  So, Cork still needs to keep planting trees and needs to reduce traffic as well.

Five Whys and Wicked Problems

In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise. The solutions to Wicked Problems are never binary (true/false) but are qualitative (better/worse). Also, the scope of the problem is often not fully understood until AFTER a solution has been formulated. This is why we often find ourselves dealing with a Five What’s situation where the answer selected was simple, obvious, and plain wrong.

Five Whys analysis helps us to think through the incompleteness and contradictions in the statement of the problem to identify how a particular action might be a step towards the overall end-goal and deliver a qualitative improvement towards the objective. And the key word there is qualitiative. It’s not about delivering a conclusive solution but instead seeking to eliminate causes for an identified deficiency.

In Cork, the City Trees are addressing a number of Whys. They are not addressing all of them. Therefore they are not a conclusive solution and Cork needs to keep up the momentum to address issues of traffic congestion and to actually tackle at the root cause the reasons for high particulate matter and nitrogen oxide levels in the city. However, the City Trees perhaps give some (no pun intended) breathing room that shows incremental improvements towards the goal.

Data Transformation as a Wicked Problem

Data transformation (or digital transformation) is also a “wicked problem”. That means that organisations often find themselves jumping to Five Whats rather than Five Whys and opting for the solution that is simple (according to the sales guy), obvious (according to a google search), and almost certainly wrong.

My friend and mentor Dr Tom Redman writes about this in his column for Sloan Management Review this month. He has applied Porter’s Force Field Analysis methodology to a number of areas of difficulty and opportunity in data. It’s compelling reading and should be mandatory reading.

Castlebridge can help you get to grips with the Five Whys of your data transformation wicked problem. Why not get in touch to see how we can help!

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