Identifying root causes for fun and sustainability


It seems to be that there are themes and patterns across several areas of life at the same time. What is seen as a recurrence in one area of life seems to come up in others. I’ve noticed this for several months, and this time around the concept of “identifying root causes” is coming up. I’m seeing a gaps which I believe a root cause analysis would fill, as well as sustainable results that would be created as a result of a proper root cause analysis.

Not to belabour what is most likely quite clear, a root cause analysis is the concept of diving deeper below the surface when presented with a circumstance/problem, and identifying the genesis of that circumstance, with the intention to resolve it. This would then prevent the knock-on affects of that root cause, thereby resolving the entire chain of circumstances from the bottom up, rather than from the top (surface issue) down.

Root cause analysis is extremely important in an engineering or product context. When something happens which affects the user of a particular piece of software, it is often more beneficial to identify the root cause and resolve that, instead of resolving the surface-level concern. This is true outside of engineering and product, as well.

There are several techniques one can apply to identify a root cause. One popular technique is the “5-why”. When presented with a statement, ask “why”. When presented with the response to that question, ask “why” again, and so on. Within 5 iterations of “why”, the root cause should at least become evident.

One such opportunity for identifying and addressing root causes came about recently, with the closure of my beloved primary school.

The affects of a decision are long-term

It was announced in June 2020, that the beloved primary school I attended would be closing it’s doors. There are two other primary schools in the system, but none as magical as mine. The decision was made after several decades of empty threats to close the school due to “continuing financial concerns”. To all, the decision to close the school is extremely sad. To many, they feel helpless and powerless in the decision. To even those on the school board of trustees, they feel somewhat helpless and are almost looking just to put this whole thing to bed once and for all. To me, I feel angry, yet not for the frustration of how poorly the decision was handled, rather for how little effort actually went into resolving the root cause. I had planned to send my children to this school in the future, which only digs the wound here deeper.

Zooming out, the school is a group of learning institutions all governed by a single body. This governance is set to uphold the mandate of the school, as well as to ensure it’s continued existence for the long term. Closing a school is in direct contradiction with this mandate (my education at the school is partially to thank for being able to see this so clearly). Thus, we apply a root cause analysis.

Skipping ahead, it is clear that the issues lie far beyond the primary school in question. The issues are financial. This should be the first indicator. This is more of a cash-flow concern than it is a funding concern. Closing the school will simply shrink the school’s asset base and, short-term, will reduce the running costs overall. When teachers are placed in the remaining schools, as are many students, the costs are simply transferred from one asset to another. Within a short duration of the school’s closing, the same cash-flow concerns will present themselves. Now we sit with an emotionally-heightened decision, made directly in contrast to the mandate the school is set to uphold, and with the same financial concern at our feet.

“We tried everything we could” simply isn’t good enough, here. If this has been a concern since the 1980’s, the school has had more than enough time to identify and correct the root cause, which is purely financial. What is lacking, alongside a root cause analysis, is long-term sustainable thinking. How will the decision we make today, impact the generation of our great-great-great-great grandchildren? What small change can we make today, which will have a significantly upward impact on our mandate for many generations to come? These are questions which come up when applying a long-term sustainable approach to one’s thought process, and focus the decision on an outcome which we may never specifically benefit from for several generations to come.

Closing the primary school is a sad event, which gutted myself and many others. When the current board of trustees all move on, and the administration is completely churned into a new group of spritely newcomers, the affects of this decision and others will remain. If the root cause can be identified and resolved (cash-flow and fund management concerns), there is an opportunity here to course correct.

If nothing else, the incredibly sad closure of the school is a learning opportunity for those on the outside of this decision. While the wounds here are still fresh and raw, the lesson I take from this experience is to identify and address root causes early, to ensure long-term sustainable growth for the organisation in question. I’m hopeful that the school will continue to grow for another 80 years and far beyond, and that the root of this concern will be addressed to ensure that growth.

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One response to “Identifying root causes for fun and sustainability”

  1. […] in particular that the one feeds the other, in this case. I connect the dots, here, through the recent closing of my beloved primary school. The intersection of these concepts could play a pivotal role in the future of the school, if we […]

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