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John Murphy
March 01, 2017

The Root Cause of All Problems

Screenshot 2017-02-28 19.50.30.pngAs simple as it might sound, wise problem-solvers who use "systems-thinking" when performing root cause analysis, find the same root cause for all problems and conflicts. The Buddha said it. Jesus said it. Effective business consultants, leaders and scientists find it time and time again. Yet most of us remain unaware. This absence of awareness (let's call it ignorance like the Buddha did) is the real problem. We do not look deep enough to find the "leverage points" and connections that ultimately change everything - in a positive, win-win, sustainable way. Instead, we get trapped on the surface - running circles around issues, solving one problem while creating several more. These side effects (often the result of faulty mental programming, impatience and outdated paradigms) are measurable evidence that we have not found the true root cause. We have not looked deep enough. We are trying to solve problems within a box when it is the box itself that is the problem.

Take healthcare in the United States, for example. While countless hours and billions of dollars are spent on who is covered by insurance, what treatments qualify, who will pay the bills, and how can we afford it, a massive opportunity is being missed by millions of people to address the true root causes. Put simply, we do not have a healthcare system. We have a sick care system - with the blind leading the blind. Just look at the data.

As a business consultant helping organizations worldwide uncover true root causes and meaningful, strategic "leverage points," I always start with the data - the brutal facts. What is really going on - factually and indisputably? If you want to pull people together and inspire positive teamwork, start with a step that gets everyone on the same page, focused and aligned on what really matters, without dispute - the current state. In the case of American healthcare, the data clearly shows that we are not a healthy nation. We rank last among developed nations in longevity (lifespan). Our obesity rates are off the charts. The ratios of major diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's are significantly higher than other nations. And on top of it all, we are trillions of dollars in debt. Now consider the anxiety and stress that this adds to the equation and we are spinning in circles, fueling the problem. Stress breeds more stress - which breaks down the immune system and increases the risk of disease.

"Systems-thinking" requires that we look beyond linear, surface-level, cause and effect relationships to connections that many people fail to see. There are some great tools to facilitate this process and one of my favorites is the "Five Why" methodology. This tool, made famous by companies like Toyota, guides us to a much deeper understanding of the real problem by taking us to a fifth level of why (typically 4-6), rather than simply one or two levels. In fact it is one of the tools that frequently leads to "poka-yoke" opportunities (i.e. "mistake-proofing). By uncovering the real problem (the true root cause), we can often eliminate it by design. Note that poor design, including process, organization and product, is a very common leverage point at levels 3-5.

Take your car, for example. If your car doesn't start and we ask one level of why, we might discover that the battery was dead. When asked a second level of why, we might discover that you left the lights on. A third level of why might lead us to the fact that you simply forgot to turn them off. When asked a fourth level of why we may discover that you forgot because there was nothing to remind you. In other words, you are human. We all make mistakes. This is where it gets interesting because we now find ourselves shifting from detection (of a problem) and reaction - to actual prevention! Why was there nothing to remind you when "forgetting" is a very common human tendency? Perhaps we never thought of it. Perhaps we didn't think it was important. Perhaps we never explored the issue this deeply - with prevention in mind. Perhaps we were ignorant? The same can be said about any problem we have - be it healthcare, finances, business, politics, education and relationships. We don't know what we don't know!

Chances are today your car has some form of mistake-proofing designed into it. Maybe it is a sound to remind you. Or perhaps your car is designed to turn off the lights for you - automatically. Either way, this simple example illustrates how the Five Why's can lead us to the most common root cause of any problem - ignorance. We simply don't know any better - yet! We don't know what we don't know. We think we have all the answers - which we fight about on the surface - but we remain in conflict. Keep in mind that conflict is the ultimate manifestation of ignorance - whether in politics, religion, nationality, race, gender, or healthcare. We are throwing assumptions and opinions around (often with very positive intent) but we are not collectively on the same page. We are not united as a team.

People often ask me how I am so effective at pulling people together as a business consultant – without any authority. I have just given you the answer. I start with effective training on topics like creative problem-solving, systems-thinking, teamwork, strategy and conflict resolution. We then apply the training as a team by collectively gathering the brutal facts about our current state. This elevates awareness and helps us align on what matters most. Next we use analysis tools like the Five Whys to uncover and align on root causes and leverage points. This also elevates awareness and leads us to a new level of thinking (as Einstein like to call it). We are becoming more enlightened as a team. From here we develop innovations and improvements that are highly creative, effective, motivating and sustainable. Some even call them genius.

W. Edwards Deming once said, "Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest." I see this frequently. Good people struggling in "systems" that are poorly designed and full of waste and unnecessary complexity. What better example do we have in the United States than our incredibly wasteful and ineffective healthcare system. This problem goes far beyond hospitals, doctors and insurance companies. It includes the terribly unhealthy foods, medicines and lifestyles we adopt - often marketed to us (ignorantly) as being healthy by people we think of as experts. The facts and data speak otherwise. Business and government leaders should take note. We have an awesome opportunity to delve beneath superficial, greedy options and selfish opinions and lead change that puts the U.S. back in good health and balance - holistically. Our healthcare "system" needs an overhaul - not a quick fix.

Meanwhile, there is a lot each one of us can do to shift from reaction to prevention. Waiting for true systems-change and transformational leadership can take awhile. So start with this. Educate yourself on natural, holistic healthcare solutions to address your own ignorance. And pay attention to who you pay attention to! Beware of the many misleading marketing campaigns on the foods you buy and the drugs you see advertised on television. If there are side-effects, there is something wrong. There is abundant research, literature, and competent advice available from credible healthcare professionals, scientists, universities, nutritionists and practitioners - approaching the problem from "outside" the current healthcare system ("box"). Take advantage of this information! It is your body, your health, your family and your well-being. Eat proven anti-cancer foods, nutrients and supplements (like high alkaline organic greens, wheatgrass, chlorella, spirulina, aloe, turmeric, and coconut oil to name a few). Learn to meditate and "let go" of any thoughts and feelings stressing you out. Adopt a simple form of "anti-aging" exercise (like interval, anaerobic training) and avoid the all-to-common "aging" forms of exercise. Remember, your body is a "system." It is an organization of trillions of cells that have an innate, divine intelligence of their own. Your body knows how to heal and find balance - naturally. Help it help you. Beware and be wise. By doing so, you will be part of the solution rather than the problem. This too is systems-thinking.

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John Murphy will be leading a workshop on March 21, 2017, at the Business Transformation & Operational Excellence World Summit in Orlando, Florida. His session, 'Global Best Practices on Leading Innovation and Change', This presentation will include a hands on simulation to illustrate the "shift" in thinking that leaders must understand to lead truly effective, innovative, sustainable culture change. The simulation provides a platform for participants to experience, discuss and apply to lessons from the session. To learn more, visit


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