Do We Really Want To Solve Problems?

Its not that we are unaware that problems exist. It’s not that we don’t want them solved. The problem, dear readers, is that no one wants to do the hard work required to figure out what is actually causing the problem.

On Monday evening, I was suffering from a severe case of writers block. I had no idea what I wanted to write about for today’s post, and frustration was running high. My stress levels were not helped by the sounds of the First Presidential Debate, which my husband was watching. The sounds of political BS, spin and non-answers were flying thick and fast through the air, and it was enough to elevate my blood pressure several notches.

Then, and idea struck. In this country, we seem to be allergic to solving problems. Its not that we are unaware that problems exist. It’s not that we don’t want them solved. The problem, dear readers, is that no one wants to do the hard work required to figure out what is actually causing the problem.

When I was studying for my Healthcare IT Workflow Management and Training certification, we completed several units on error prevention. This included training in Root Cause Analysis, a method of investigation which favors examining all of the variable which contributed to an error, and placing as many obstacles as possible in the way of those variables so that the occurrences of errors are reduced.

To the writers of the course, this seemed like a novel breakthrough. To me, a historian by training, this was merely common sense. If history is anything, it is the practice of Root Cause Analysis.  Why did the Civil War start? It wasn’t just one factor…it wasn’t ten factors. It was hundreds of variables and factors, any one of which might have tipped the scales another way. Historians study these variables, noting them and their impact on the events in question. They are always asking “Why?” to confirm that they have found all of the variables and left nothing unstudied. It’s the way my brain works, and I’ve never been able to shut it off.

The debate was full of problems facing the country, and these problems have answers. But easy answers is all that was given (or, in the case of one candidate, not given at all). Moreover, easy answers are all the people expect. “Wave a magic wand and fix it!” people cry. “Just don’t bore me with the details.” The only problem is that life isn’t like that. These problems are complex, and complex problems do not have simple solutions. To people like me, who see things from a systemic viewpoint and automatically begin looking for the root causes behind issues, this push for easy answers is maddening because we know that addressing the symptom is not the same thing as curing the disease.

This kind of myopia exists not only in politics, but in business as well. Take Wells Fargo, one of the largest banks in the country who recently settled with the CFPB for the largest fine in history because of institutionalized fraud committed by bank employees. The bank is also now facing a class-action lawsuit from former employees who allege, because they refused to perform the fraudulent and illegal actions in question, were fired for being unable to meet sales quotas which were not attainable unless an employee did commit fraud.

The bank fired 5,300 employees it said were the cause of the problem, and more likely than not they will settle the lawsuit out of court to try and make the entire case go away. John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo, testified before Congress that he was completely unaware of the fraud occurring in his company. This at best makes him look incompetent. At worse…well I’ll let you fill in the blank.

Just as in the case of the problems facing our nation, Wells Fargo is unlikely to look into the actual cause of this fraud. Possibly because they know what the outcome will be, or possibly because they just want the whole thing to go away, they will not perform the to-the-bones level Root Cause Analysis to figure out how a problem like this could have gone unchecked for so long, and what kinds of things need to change or be put in place to prevent these issues in the future. An investigation may be run, but how thorough it will be is another question entirely.

Running an RCA is difficult. It takes a long time, and forces you to examine things that you may not want to face. It will bring to light things that you would rather not see the light of day. It requires you to put away your pride and expose yourself and others to an uncomfortable level of scrutiny. But, in the end, is the only way to solve the problem.

Those of us who naturally think in a systemic, RCA-type mindset need to better advocate for its importance, and have the patience to realize that the amount of change required for this kind of a shift in thinking means that progress may be slow. And we all need a giant dose of bravery to allow us to begin truly solving these complex problems.


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