October 5, 2005 | Mark Paradies

Are categories a hindrance to good root cause analysis?

Some people seem to think that the only way to arrive at a root cause (or root causes) for an accident is to do original thinking for each investigation and not rely on pre-defined categories.

They believe you should start by developing and testing all the possible cause-and-effect relationships that could have caused the accident. Then you validate the one true chain of cause-and-effect that caused the accident in question by using the evidence that you have collected. This provides you with the answers to prevent future accidents by breaking the cause-and-effect chain.

Many people with this view of problem-solving complain that any system with “categories” limits investigators to a pre-defined view of the world and therefore causes “less good” root cause analysis than their “unconstrained” view of the world.

Thus people with this belief often break root cause analysis into two types of systems:

1) Systems with categories and

2) Systems without categories.

However, I believe that ALL systems have categories.

The difference is that there are:

1) Systems with well thought out well-defined categories and

2) Systems with categories that aren’t well explained/defined and with the categories are carried around in the user’s brain in the form of language, experience, and categorized knowledge.

When it comes right down to it, human beings are CATEGORICAL thinkers.

Seldom do we think in the abstract. When we do, it is difficult.

We start recognizing categories as soon as we start learning. Things like “hot” and “cold.” We eventually learn a language that uses defined (categorized) words to communicate. We even write books of common definitions (dictionaries) to communicate more accurately.

As humans, we develop mental models of how things should work (the red light means to stop, or a computer mouse should operate in a certain way). Thus, without language and categories, communication, thought, and life becomes very difficult.

By the way, in my experience, most investigators who use a “non-categorical” systems and brag about their thinking not being constrained by categories actually have a SMALLER number of categories that they “practically” choose from when investigating and finding root causes than investigators who use TapRooT® (a system that some may call categorical).

And being an “experienced” investigator doesn’t necessarily mean your number of categories is bigger. Some people just become more convinced that their favorite category (or categories) are really the root cause (or root causes) of all the world’s problems.

To measure your own number of categories, look at the variety (by category) of your corrective actions. Some people have as few as three categories for all human error! (They usually have a few more for equipment failures.)

One more proof of my point is that when people divide root cause systems into two types (categorical and non-categorical), they are categorizing!

Philosophical discussions can be fun, but the real question that should be asked is: “Which root cause system is the best for helping real people solve real problems by finding answers that improve performance?”

Using TapRooT® puts an end to this debate.

Investigations, Root Cause Analysis
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