Proximate vs Root Causes


Notes on Proximate vs Root Causes: Why You Should Keep Digging to Find the Answer

The proximate cause is the first-order obvious cause for an event. The root cause is the true โ€œwhyโ€ underlying an event.

For example, getting laid off. The proximate cause is that the company is going through hard times and has to let some people go. The root cause is that you werenโ€™t valuable enough to be kept on. We can go further. Why were we not valuable enough? What lead to that condition that was considered not valuable?

Essentially, this is a process of continually asking how or why to an answer, peeling back layers of rationalization and so on, until we have a true understanding.

Predisposing Factors ๐Ÿ”—

These are the factors that we take into account when figuring out the root cause.

Things like:

  • Location
  • Exact nature of the effect
  • Severity
  • Time
  • Level of vulnerability to the effect
  • Cause
  • Factors that reduced its severity

Establishing Root Cause ๐Ÿ”—

Root cause is that most basic reason for an undesirable condition or problem which, if eliminated or corrected, would have prevented it from existing or occurring.

Paul Wilson, Root Cause Analysis

Socratic Questioning ๐Ÿ”—

This system seeks to draw out causes through disciplined questioning. It tends to follow this process:

  1. Clarify thinking and explain the origin of the idea. (What happened and what do I think caused it.)
  2. Challenging Assumptions (why do I think this?)
  3. Looking for evidence
  4. Alternative perspectives
  5. Consequences and implications
  6. Questioning the original questions. Now that I know the root cause, what can I do differently?

Five Whys ๐Ÿ”—

A simpler technique but also valuable. For a statement, ask โ€œwhy?โ€ and continue asking โ€œwhy?โ€ to each successive answer until you reach the root cause.

Cause and Effect Diagrams ๐Ÿ”—

By listing all the causes and putting them into a chart with some Boolean combinations, we can get a better idea of how causes interact to cause something, which are most important to fix, and so on.

This often lets us pick one cause as the root cause, without which none of the other causes would have been sufficient.

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