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Seven tried-and-true techniques for solving any problem

Employing one of these causal analysis techniques can help you find a sustainable solution.

1. 5 Whys Analysis

One of the simplest causal analysis methods involves asking yourself “why” five times.4 You start by identifying the problem. “My house is always disorganized.” Then, you ask yourself why that is the case. You create a chain of inquiry that offers insight about the core of the problem. Find out how to do a good 5 Whys analysis here.

2. Pareto Analysis

This is sometimes referred to as the “80/20 Rule.” The idea here is that 20% of your actions cause 80% of the results.5
Usually, when you are having a problem, there are a few major contributors, referred to as the “vital few.” Then there are the “trivial many,” smaller problems which can deepen the effects of a poor habit or problematic mindset.
Many people go after one of the “trivial many” instead of focusing on the “vital few” causes that are creating the most trouble.

As you can see from the diagram, the x-axis contains contributing factors for tardiness. The left y-axis represents the number of instances in which the lateness occurs. The right y-axis shows you how the number of instances stacks up against the percentage of the total problem. The orange line is the cumulative percentage of the problems that contribute to lateness overall. As you can see, traffic, child care, and public transportation were the major contributors to tardiness. If you wanted to improve your punctuality, you should focus on traffic, child care, and public transportation issues because they are the most common causes for lateness.
While this method appears complicated, there are many software templates available to you to facilitate this type of visualization.

3. Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA)

This multi-step causal analysis can illustrate the root of your problem, but it is also an effective way to anticipate difficulties when you are trying something new.6
  1. Begin by ascertaining the problem (real or anticipated).
  2. Then, name all the things that are contributing to the failure.
  3. Ask yourself how often the failure is occurring.
  4. List the actions you have taken to ensure that the failure does not recur.
  5. Analyze whether those solutions worked for you.
You can revisit this line of inquiry at any time, but it is especially valuable after you restructure a procedure or policy.

4. Fault Tree Analysis

This visual model for ascertaining the root of problems is best employed where matters of safety are concerned. While Boolean algebra can make this model more robust, at its most basic level, you begin this analysis by naming the problem. Below the problem, you create boxes which contain factors contributing to the undesired outcome. Unlike other models, which encourage you to think about broad potential contributors, fault tree analysis requires that you look at what is known and deduce meaning from that.7

5. Current Reality Tree (CRT)

When you are dealing with a number of problems at the same time, the CRT can be an effective way to understand what the problems are and what connections exist between them.
For example, you may have noticed that your boss is mad at you all the time, you are late on a frequent basis, and you are often too fatigued to work.
  1. Place each of these undesirable effects, your angry boss, tardiness, and fatigue, into their own box at the bottom of your tree.
  2. Brainstorm the possible causes for each of these problems independently, and place each cause in its own box as a “branch” sprouting from the tree.
  3. Take time to analyze each of the problems that you listed in connection to one another as “If…then” statements. “If my boss is angry with me, then is it related to my frequent tardiness.”
  4. Connect ideas in your CRT with arrows.
Eventually you will notice common threads between the undesirable effects.8

6. RPR (Rapid Problem Resolution) Diagnosis

This type of causal analysis involves three main steps.
  1. In the discovery phase, you collect information to ascertain problems.
  2. During the investigation phase, you create a plan based off the data that you have collected.
  3. Finally, you set your plan in motion.
If you choose to use this type of causal analysis, you should periodically check in to ensure that you properly identified the problem and your solution is working as intended.9

7. Cause-and-Effect Diagram or “Fishbone” Diagram

This means of visualizing a problem is useful whether you are working on your own or with a team.10
As with other models, you start by identifying your problem. One horizontal line, cuts through the center of your diagram like the spine of a fish, hence the name. Several diagonal lines radiate from the spine.
At the top of each of these lines, write the type of cause that contributes to the problem. For example, if your problem is that you are frequently unhappy, categories of causes that contribute to your problem could be family, work, and health. Ask yourself why each of these categories feeds into your problem. These are the causes for your symptoms. A symptom of your unhappiness rooted in your family might be that you feel disconnected from your partner. Brainstorm as many causes in the categories as you can.
After you finish your diagram, you will have a better sense of where your problem originates. You may notice that some categories have more causes that contribute to the undesired symptom than others. You can also think about how these categories are connected. Rather than trying to chop the head off the hydra, you can develop of systematic plan that deals with the issue at its core.

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