Five Whys, Socratic Method, and Dependent Arising

Root cause analysis—jargon for managers in lean startups and Agile dev shops. In plain language, isn’t it “Well, I hear what you’re saying, but what’s really going on?”

I feel a rambling, messy first draft coming on.

Why in the world do we need jargon for such a common line of reasoning? This is every day stuff, isn’t it?

  • Parents ask each other in whispers at night: “But why is she acting out like this all of a sudden? Is it those kids at school again?”
  • A doctor sees the symptoms and begins to diagnose the cause.
  • Marriage counselors around the country today coached couples to understand their partners a little better.

Yes, and an Agile team somewhere held a 5 whys session to figure out how that persnickety bug made it through testing, so that they could address the root cause.

Oh, pardon my cynicism, I have trouble writing that line with a straight face; if the team didn’t actually discern the root cause (there’s always just one, right?), they will have at least changed something to avoid one of the causes. How else to get better, really?

I’m being too jaded. Of course root cause analysis, the 5 whys method is one tactic for such analysis, is important. I just cringe at the assumption of a single cause for problems. And those technical problems that are found with lean and agile work often end up (or is that start off as) being human problems, and those are rarely so singular.

In design work, I really don’t know that I’ve asked the question, “So, what is the root cause of this problem?” Though I have most often sought to understand and clarify the problem space, the context, the people involved, their desires and motivations, the corporate interests, et cetera—you know, the basic stuff a designer needs to know in order to actually do good work [PDF].

I simply cannot right out of the gate assume I know what I don’t yet know so well that I would presume it, if it is indeed an it, is a singular problem. The result of that kind of simplistic framing would tend towards imprecise assumptions and lack of multiple perspectives. A lack of understanding. And don’t those sound like further problems that could result in errors? Garbage-in, garbage-out.

So, if I can kick the feet out from under Agile’s dumbed down root cause analysis and just stick with something more like defining the problem, or semantics (as Vignelli has used it), I’ll relax on this point.

Can I assume that this better understanding is what we’re all actually after?

I was in a meeting once, asking deeper questions, and a person I was talking with was frustrated and said something like, “I know all about five whys, I know what you’re doing!” The person was asking me to back off, because he wasn’t prepared to answer questions. While that does make the point to me that I was pushing too hard, I wasn’t expecting the five whys remark.

I was actually patterning the discussion more off of Socrates and his dialogues. I’ve heard the term Socratic Method being described as continuing to question, to ask why. Well, yeah, that sounds like a 5 whys, but I’ve read Plato enough that I understand that those dialogues are far more nuanced than a series of whys.

Wasn’t the philosophical discourse of Socrates and his learned colleagues some sort of root cause analysis too? Is a discourse into the nature of the soul and idealized Forms an analysis? Of course, and there is an aspect of Phaedo that suggests that these Forms are in fact causal forces. I’d call that root cause analysis.

So, this type of “what’s really going on here?” question isn’t just for work any more, it’s for philosophy and an understanding of the world itself (yeah, even though we all believe Socrates had it wrong).

And this question of the underlying problem is common too in religion, isn’t it? What’s wrong with the world? With us humans?! I call a five whys for the fallen world!

I joke, but Buddhists might associate this notion of root cause analysis with another bit of jargon: dependent arising.

As I’ve learned, when Gautama sat in profound ascetic meditation under the Bodhi-tree, nourished by an offering of rice milk, and under the gazes of the gods of many world-systems, he finally received enlightenment. In his awakening under that auspicious tree, he knew what are called the four noble truths (knowledge of suffering, cause of suffering, cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to that cessation).

And yes one of those truths, central to a major world religion, is the root cause of suffering! (Oh, if only an Agile 5 whys was so profound!) The cause of suffering is actually described as a nested layering of causes, which finally reach that singular kernel that causes suffering (duhkha). This is the notion of dependent arising, that suffering arises dependent upon all these other links in the chain. When I read the series of links, I still don’t think it comes down to a simple answer, but the answer itself isn’t the single cause, but the whole chain of dependent arising is part of it. You don’t disassemble it so much as sidestep the whole chain. And yes, that’s quite an oversimplification. Here’s a bit of that root cause analysis as dependent arising (there are 12 links/nidana).

Conditioned by (1) ignorance are (2) formations, conditioned by formations is (3) consciousness, conditioned by consciousness is (4) mind-and-body, conditioned by mind-and-body are (5) the six senses, conditioned by the six-senses is (6) sense-contact, conditioned by sense-contact is (7) feeling, conditioned by feeling is (8) craving, conditioned by craving is (9) grasping, conditioned by grasping is (10) becoming, conditioned by becoming is (11) birth, conditioned by birth is (12) old-age and death—grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair come into being. Thus is the arising of this whole mass of suffering.
(Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, 141-142)

This doesn’t strike me as mono-causal, even though it sounds like it at the end of the chain: death results in a whole mass of suffering. Well, how do you get rid of death, then? Will you get rid of birth?

Right, and so the whole tangled up ball of yarn gets pulled along. There are many causes, and there are many results. This strikes me not just as dependent arising, but interdependent arising. Duhkha, I shake my fist at you!

So, again, this root cause analysis thing is all over the place: work, family life, health, philosophy, religion. But doesn’t it tend to not be simply understood as singular causes? (Christianity seems easier to me, until I try to put a finger on where exactly original sin came in: fruit, gullible Adam, Eve, serpent, why was the tree there to begin with? It gets messy too.)

Let me end this rant, I mean blog post, by saying simply, using terms that suggest we think of single causes to complex problems is foolishness and it bugs me.

(Oh, and the 5 whys method looks a lot more like dependent arising to me than the Socratic method.)

Author: Davin Granroth

Davin is Chief Operating Officer for Covenant Eyes, Inc. in Owosso, MI, USA, where he gets to mix his background in user experience design, research, and strategy with the operation of a software company. For more, see his LinkedIn profile.

2 thoughts on “Five Whys, Socratic Method, and Dependent Arising”

  1. Hello Davin, you hit a lot of good points here. I agree with your assessment of 5 Whys and the fallacy that is the single root cause expectation. Also, I understand the sentiment behind your opening statement “Root cause analysis—jargon for managers…”, so I won’t belabor the point. What I will say is that “root cause analysis” isn’t always just jargon; as practiced in a variety of high hazard industries (e.g., nuclear power), it is much more than an empty phrase.

    Just to give some perspective… when I was first trained in root cause analysis nearly 20 years ago (at a nuclear power plant), I was taught to use about 5 or 6 different tools for investigating and analyzing problems and events; every one of them was much better than 5 Whys. In addition, I was taught that I should expect to find a few causes for every problem, some of which might be root causes and some that might just be contributors.

    That being said, 5 Whys can be fixed to some extent. My own fixed version has a few fans; it might be of interest to you. I call it 5×5 Whys (the x5 part probably isn’t what you expect). Check it out at http://www.bill-wilson.net/b73

    Regards!

  2. Hi Bill, I’ve finally got around to reading your article. Thank you for that reasoning and improvement on 5 Whys! Your modification, and that of your other commenter, certainly addresses core issues.

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