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Three Essential Skills of Root-cause Analysis and Problem-solving
Three Essential Skills of Root-cause Analysis and Problem-solving

Three Essential Skills of Root-cause Analysis and Problem-solving

To improve at root-cause analysis and problem solving, we need to improve our reasoning skills, Q&A skills, and curiosity. They are essential.


Asking and answering questions well is an art. It takes practice and insight.

And here I do not mean only asking questions of other people. I mean asking and answering questions in the privacy of one’s own mind.

Q&A has some important cognitive functions. It drives our thinking. It helps us pull information out of our memory. It helps direct our thinking. Drive, that is, like an engine or a push, and direct, that is, like a goal or aim.

Questions also make things explicit. They help us focus. They help us establish context. They help us grasp what we know and give us a hint about what we don’t even know we don’t know. Questioning is a more effective and productive alternative than is sitting around, waiting blankly and aimlessly for some idea to enter our minds.

One way we can improve is by asking “why?” of things, of ourselves or of others. I’ll do that when teaching or (private) tutoring, to help students learn good thinking skills and cognitive independence. I can tell that no one else does that with them, or it happens very rarely, because, when they get an answer right and I ask “why?,” they think they are wrong. They’ve never heard that question before to a correct answer. “Why?” is something teachers ask, if ever, only when students are wrong. They are not, as a matter of habit and everyday practice, asked to explain their reasoning and how they got their answer. So it’s something we should practice on our own and with others — but, with others, my recommendation is to make sure they know what you are doing, so they don’t think you are doubting or insulting them.

And ask variations to “why?,” like “how do you know?,” “how did you get your answer/conclusion?,” “what is the chain of reasoning and the evidence you used to come to your conclusion?”

In general, you could ask other questions too, to think about context, the bigger picture, the meaning of something, etc. “What would things be like if X was not the case?” “What would things be like if the opposite was true?” “What is the bigger picture?” “Why does it matter?” Etc.

Another important Q&A skill to practice is deriving a series of questions that fit together into a logical chain that goes from an initial thought to a far distant answer, or vice versa: from answer to far distant basic thought.

Then, as a next step, like going to a different color belt in martial arts, you could practice the skill of segueing off of one question into a new “side branch” series of questions. You could see how many “side branches” you could develop. And, as a next level, you could have “side branches” on your “side branches.”

At work, you could have some meetings or professional study groups where the group practices crafting and answering questions, and uses them to derive more questions, and so on. Then you all can analyze what you did, analyze everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, analyze the quality of the questions, assess the degree to which a series of questions fits together in a logical chain, and synthesize what you learn into your thinking and into company process. It’s good to focus on actual things at work or in the profession, not some “intellectual games,” so people don’t have their time wasted nor feel like it’s wasted.


Curiosity drives us to learn more and dig deeper. It helps keep us from being hasty or superficial, and helps keep us from accepting the word of authority or conformity — all of which stifle good root-cause analysis and problem solving. We do best when we habitually want to know more and to be sure we are right.

Curiosity helps give us the drive and motivation to keep going until we have an answer, to make more cognitive connections, to verify that we are correct, to analyze a situation and to connect it back to the big picture.

We need curiosity to “think outside the box,” to consider things from different angles, to not accept a plausible or ready-made explanation, to want to know why, to not accept what we already know but instead to want to know the “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns,” to want to know all about something: its nature and its “ecology.”

One thing we could do to cultivate our curiosity is to ask people about their interests, why they are into them, and what they’ve learned. As some cultures say “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” We can have the tendency to talk a lot or throw out our own opinion; we should work on controlling that a bit to listen more — after all, we ain’t gonna learn something new by giving our opinion, we are going to learn (and hence improve) by listening to other opinions and chains of reasoning.

We could ask all sorts of questions like “What are your hobbies?,” “Why do you like X?,” “What are you passionate about?,” “Why?,” “What have you learned from it?,” etc. Or ask them to tell you about it.

If need be, make the conversation interesting by connecting, in your own mind, what they are saying to an interest of yours or to what you do for work. Or analyze what they are saying in light of history or philosophy.

Another thing you could do is, for someone in your same occupation, to find out their interests, then work on developing that interest and learning how it helps you in your career. Give yourself time to learn about it, because something at first frustrating or boring to us becomes interesting when we learn more about it. We just need to get over the “boring bump” or the “interest hill.”

Especially important for creativity, I think, is taking up interests outside your area of specialty. Creativity occurs, after all, by making connections between seemingly disparate ideas or things. So observe, learn, think, and process things outside your comfort zones.

As Santiago Ramon y Cajal, a father of modern neuroscience, said: “To him who observes [scientists with artistic hobbies] from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality, they are channeling and strengthening them.”

At work, have some meetings or professional study groups where you share something you are interested in, and others learn from it. Everyone can delve into how that hobby or interest ties into work (and into other people’s hobbies and interests). People could ask questions of the presenter, including questions from outside points of view, and could think about how the hobbies and interests of listeners are related to the hobbies and interests of the presenter.


Reasoning is putting evidence, observations, concepts, propositions, and principles together in a logically connected sequence of steps to reach a conclusion.

And, unfortunately, that is not common knowledge or common practice, I think, at least not in an integrated, holistic way for any one person: most of us have some good and bad thinking methods, even in areas we know well; some of us have good thinking methods in one area of thought, like maybe business or physics (where we might go with solid, rigorous reasoning from direct experience), but poor thinking methods in another, like maybe psychology or fitness or health (where we might go with convention or authority, not direct evidence).

But, unless we’ve studied e.g. physics as it developed inductively through history, step by step, then we have a mix even there — culturally, the study and teaching of physics is infected with some Platonism, generally conceived. Not our fault. But we do have to suffer from it, unfortunately. I know I sure did.

Thank goodness we are self-sovereign social animals, so we can do something about it. Volition is our freedom. And people who have done good work in philosophy, epistemology, and the history and philosophy of science are our saviors and our gurus. I’ve learned tons from them.

Reasoning is conceived of differently by different philosophers, so I should be clear and say it’s the Aristotelian tradition that matters and is correct. The historical record shows that Platonic ideas are a failure, as are the ideas in their tradition, like those of Kant, Descartes, Kuhn, Popper, etc. The conception of reasoning we need is the one shared by Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Marie Curie, Maria Montessori, et. al. Reason is a faculty that conceptualizes the evidence of the senses, classifies it, abstracts generalizations from it, and deduces consequences from those inductions. It is not a faculty that “makes stuff up out of whole cloth,” as the saying goes.

As Galileo said: “I should even think that in making the celestial material alterable, I contradict the doctrine of Aristotle much less than do those people who still want to keep the sky inalterable; for I am sure that he never took its inalterability to be as certain as the fact that all human reasoning must be placed second to direct experience.” (From the Second Letter of Galileo Galilei to Mark Welser on Sunspots, p. 118 of Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, translated by Stillman Drake, © 1957 by Stillman Drake, published by Doubleday Anchor Books, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, New York.)

Abraham Lincoln studied and memorized all the proofs in Euclid’s Elements, and did so deliberately and explicitly in order to make himself a better reasoner in order to be better in his law practice. It also helped him debate better and write better speeches. But, hey, reasoning underlies all those practices, so no wonder. (It’s documented and analyed in the book Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason by Hirsch and Van Haften.)

We’d all benefit by reflecting on our own reasoning, and measuring it by the epistemological and philosophical standards of the Aristotelian tradition.

To do well at root-cause analysis and problem solving, we should, yes, have some imagination and creativity — but stuff we think of is useless and irrelevant unless and until we can bring it into the totality of what we know, into the context of all our conceptual knowledge and reasoning. If we cannot put something in context of the realm of cause and effect that we know and understand, it does not matter.

We need to know when we’ve really got a cause or a solution, and not fall for the plausible or the quick and easy. We need to know what a proven conclusion looks like and feels like — and that means being able to justify things as we do in iron-clad geometric proof, and not being OK with merely memorizing things as we did in school. We need a whole different “mind set” than the one we were trained into by too much of our education.

We could develop our ability to reason by starting to write out or diagram a few links in a chain of reasoning. We could do that until we feel comfortable with it, then make it 5, then 7, then 11 links/steps in the chain.

Then we could make sure we have evidence for what we say. Direct experience should back it up: we need to know what actually is, not what our feelings are or whatever we think of to explain something. We need the certain, not merely the possible or plausible.

We need to practice weaving together evidence and ideas into a connected series of steps that lead to a conclusion, all steps being taken in accordance with the laws of logic (which includes classification, definition, concept-formation, and induction; logic is about a lot more than mere deduction).

A “model” could be geometric proof, as it was for Lincoln. And, in that vein, a “model” could be a Lincolnesque legal argument.

At work, have some meetings or professional study groups where you all together lay out processes of reasoning that are as tight as a geometric proof. Make it part of company processes — especially some personnel decisions made by managers! If someone makes a claim that an employee is good or bad at their work, the person better’d be able to back it up with reasoning (which, properly conceived, includes evidence) and better’d be able to show it’s consistent with broader contexts (e.g., beyond what the one person thinks). So, for example, it should be consistent with what other people think and can prove about the claim.

In fact, some HR employee meetings could be about one HR person making a claim they believe like “X is not a team player” and backing it up with reasoning, while other HRers assess the quality of the reasoning and evidence, and identify pros and cons to it all.

Meetings where people lay out evidence and chains of reasoning for a conclusion would make sure everyone really gets some of the fconcepts and ideas needed for the job. The meetings would be practice in reasoning as well as corporate training.

And then everyone individually and collectively develops the habit of reasoning, so, in problem solving and root-cause analysis, there is no question about what to do, how good reasoning “feels,” or what the standards are for good reasoning.


Put it all together — Q&A, curiosity, and reasoning — and you have a solid basis for root-cause analysis and problem solving.

Michael helps students, teachers, and business professionals in academic subjects and professional fields, and in critical thinking, logic, and root-cause analysis. He has a B.S. in Mathematics, a B.A. in Philosophy, and a Texas Teacher Certificate (Secondary Mathematics), and is a MovNat Certified Level 2 Fitness Trainer. He studies the history and philosophy of physics, tracing out its logical development step by step from ancient times to modern, and has studied some history and philosophy of chemistry and mathematics. He has decades of experience with students in public schools, homeschools, elite private schools; decades of experience studying philosophy and logic; and decades of successful experience teaching logic and thinking skills. He teaches and tutors physics, chemistry, math, SAT/ACT prep, sentence diagramming, philosophy, fitness, logic, critical thinking, root-cause analysis, and epistemology. You may find him at Gold AcademyTotal Human FitnessLinkedIn, and Outschool, and on YouTube @GoldAcademy and @TotalHumanFitness. He also posts nature videos @TrueToNature and nature pictures on Flickr.

(Sherlock Holmes image from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Statue_of_Sherlock_Holmes_in_Edinburgh.jpg)

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