Cause Analysis and Systems Thinking

It’s been traditional within performance consulting to talk about cause analysis or even root cause analysis.  This implies a mentality that we can get to the cause or primary factor responsible for the performance gap.  This also seems to imply a linear “start-stop” relationship of sorts.

Klaus Wittkuhn has written about this issue.   His point is that a systems approach (and a good performance analysis requires a systems approach) would reject the idea of a linear scheme with a clean start and end.  If we’re truly taking a systems perspective to performance, than we have to honestly admit that issues are circular.  That means that the concept of “a cause” is probably flawed.

That said, this doesn’t eliminate the importance of doing cause analysis.  To admit that something is circular and that there may not be a “cause” does not mean we shouldn’t look for influences or leverage points that allow us to determine what shapes a particular performance issue (and therefore where to act if we want to minimize the gap).

So taking a systems perspective on performance problems, it means it probably makes more sense for us to talk “leverage points” or “influences” than root causes.  And approached the right way, this refocus may actually make client conversations easier.  Rather than trying to debate about what is really “causing” the problem instead we can just take the position of regardless of the “cause” we’ve identified a critical point or an influence or a leverage point.

Joe Willmore, President