Finding the Root Cause of Problems

Many problems have root causes that are important to their solution(s).

Symptoms are an indicator that there is a problem (or problems) in a business or in one’s personal life.

The reasons behind those symptoms are important. An illustration is found in the medical profession.

A family doctor is concerned about treating the root cause of a patient’s problem rather than the symptoms; otherwise the problem may not go away.

If a patient complains of a stomach pain, and the doctor gives that individual an antacid to relieve the pain without doing any tests, then he may only be treating the symptoms.

What if the pain was due to an ulcer, or worse?

Differential Diagnosis

Medical schools teach a systematic technique to identify a patient’s disease causing a patient’s symptoms called differential diagnosis. A medical condition must be identified before it can be treated. Differential diagnosis is a form of scientific reasoning.

To diagnose a disease, a doctor observes a patient’s symptoms by examining the patient and reviewing personal and family history. Then, the physician lists the most probable causes of the ailment.

Next, the doctor performs tests to eliminate possibilities until the most likely cause (or causes) for the illness has been uncovered.

Once the cause of the symptoms has been discovered, the doctor prescribes a therapy. If the patient doesn’t improve the diagnosis is reassessed and the search for a cure continues.

This method of thinking using differential diagnosis can be applied to other fields. This is called transference.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a medical doctor in Edinburgh Scotland in the 1880’s who learned about differential diagnosis.

The successes of his now classic stories rely on Sherlock Holmes’s use of differential diagnosis to solve crimes. Holmes would observe many clues, how they were related and then determine who the criminal was. This is a classic example of transference of one's knowledge to another profession.

The Broken Windows Theory

Here is another example of how discovering the root cause of a problem can be the key to solving it.

Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book The Tipping Point that it is possible for ideas, messages and behaviors to spread rapidly. Gladwell argues convincingly that to change an entire population it is not necessary to change everyone, only a small percentage of people.

The point at which the ideas, messages or behaviors of a population changes rapidly is known as the tipping point. Similar to an epidemic, contagious behavior is caused by a relatively small percentage of people.

In one key story Gladwell discusses how behavior of criminals in New York City was changed. This was done by understanding human behavior and implementing tactics to improve it.

In the 1980s and early 1990’s the poor neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York and their streets had every conceivable violent and dangerous crime.

Crime was spreading like a virus. To combat it New York needed a stronger vaccine—in essence, an anti-crime preventative.

A common solution for lowering crime is adding more police and jails. However, this only treats the symptoms of the problem. It does nothing to address the root cause of crime nor does it lower it.

To solve its crime situation, New York City implemented what is now known as the Broken Windows theory. It was the brainchild of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling.

Their Broken Windows theory states that if a window is broken and left un-repaired then people walking by will assume no one cares and no one is in charge.

Graffiti, public disorder and aggressive panhandling are the equivalents of broken windows. They were evidence of the virus that was inviting more serious crimes in New York City.

In other words, when a place is messy, people add to the messiness. That was the root cause of the crime in New York City.

The solution that the Broken Windows theory provided was to clean up the city. Then, people would have an inclination to keep it clean. That in turn would reduce the serious crime. The discovery of this simple root cause has some startling implications.

The Broken Windows theory solution was put into effect in all of New York City when Rudolph Giuliani became mayor. He appointed William Bratton as chief of police.

Both Giuliani and Bratton believed that by controlling the minor and seemingly insignificant quality-of-life crimes they could create a Tipping Point for dropping the crime rate.

Giuliani and Bratton executed a policy to fix all broken windows, stop panhandlers, and paint over graffiti. They literally had the streets cleaned up.

For example, Bratton’s police officers arrested people for not paying their train fairs. Although a small crime, these actions sent a signal to the criminal community that crime (any crime) wouldn’t be tolerated by the authorities.

The offenders were taken to police stations and checked for other outstanding offenses. Seven out of ten had outstanding offenses against them.

In another example, when gang members painted their graffiti overnight on trains, the authorities had the trains re-painted by the next morning. The gang members saw their hard work created overnight eliminated. This helped break their will to paint graffiti.

The broken windows theory worked. Crime dropped precipitously. People started caring; they felt someone was in charge. They began taking better care of their city.#1

1. Gladwell, Malcomb. The Tipping Point—How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston, New York, London: Little, Brown and Company, 2000).

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