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  • John R. Durant

Find the Root Causes of Root Causes

Updated: May 19, 2021

Talk to line-level people, and learn from them. You might not like what you hear, and that’s probably a good thing.

In my parent’s humble social circles in north Minneapolis near West Broadway, I learned that the meat packers, literal ditch diggers (my father at one point), machinists, and janitors we mingled with were wiser than their employers about many things. This was primarily because they could see the root cause of root causes. Their “boots on the ground” view sometimes (not always) gave them a better “big picture” view than those at the top. But too often, their ideas for solving the problems that vexed their employers failed to go anywhere. Solutions were ignored, unheeded, or perpetually delayed. In time, this constant rejection caused front-line workers to just stop caring. They would punch in, do their time, and punch out knowing full well that the s**t would eventually “hit the fan,” and they’d just deal with it. Let me share a more current and instructive example.

Chief Mistake Officers rebound from failure stronger than ever
This is the result of a larger problem

Always another show

Some time ago, a friend of mine sent me a photo of the tangled mess in an IT closet (this photo is not the worst I've seen). Amid the wild tangle of cables and power cords was a cheap power strip dangling precariously. The power strip had several cords plugged into it, providing precious power to essential switches that allow the world-wide business to function. Only the outlet prongs frictional coefficient prevented the strip from succumbing to gravity and unplugging itself. If this were to happen, the entire business would come to a halt. I can tell you from woeful experience that in the wake of the panic, executive outrage, poor troubleshooting, and delayed trip to the demarc where the power strip would be found limply hanging beyond the reach of electricity, nothing would really change. A year later, that power strip would still be hanging where it was (it probably still is).

The REAL root cause

It is likely that everyone involved would commonsensically agree that the root cause is the power strip. The strip is overloaded and not tied down. But that’s not the true cause. The REAL root cause is more fundamental, and the failure to identify it is precisely why the power strip will be still hanging there a year later. The primary reason that the power strip is dangling, that the cables are a mess, and that the equipment is a jumbled heap is precisely because there is no possibility of shutting anything down so that the mess can be reorganized, cleaned up, secured, and put in order. Why? Very often, even if an IT team sets maintenance windows, circumstances or someone in higher authority scuttles the plan of shutting things down so that the work can be done. Too often, the team is told, “Now is not a good time.” They usually have legitimate concerns that lead them to scuttle plans and hold to the status quo. But the results can be disastrous and even self-fulfilling. Why would the organization allow this risk to persist? Bingo! That's the question.

Now, this power strip issue is also an analogy. I’ve seen the same tragic dynamic play out in software development many times. For example, a customer reports a security vulnerability or a performance issue. The team goes to work finding the root cause (“It’s a line in our transport code!”). But what led to the faulty line of code getting in there in the first place? Why wasn’t it better tested? What is it about the broader organization that it allows poorly tested code to go out the door?

Answering these crucial questions invariably leads to a more meaningful (hopefully challenging) discussion about the organization and how it functions.

The way forward

As you and your teams find root causes, look for the cause of those root causes. Talk to line-level people, and learn what they can teach you. You might not like what you hear, and that’s very likely a good thing. Their unique perspective can open your eyes to systemic, pervasive, and chronic problems in how your organization functions, how decisions are made, how clashing incentives across departments may be causing horrible things to happen. Be on the lookout for the root cause of the root causes to the problems that come into view.

© Growthsight, LLC 2021


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