What prevents us from improving systems?

Improvement is a process and sometimes it can feel like it is a one-step-forward-two-steps-back sort of shuffle. And just like any dance, knowing the steps to avoid can be critical. Here are some important ones to consider. In many ways they can be considered an onion, we systematically can address a problem layer and then work our way to the next.


The vague, ambiguous and poorly defined bucket concept called human error is just a mess. Human error is never the root cause; it is a category, an output that needs to be understood. Why did the human error occur? Was it because the technology was difficult to use or that the procedure was confusing? Those answers are things that are “actionable”—you can address them with a corrective action.

The only action you can take when you say “human error” is to get rid of the people. As an explanation the concept it widely misused and abused. 

Human performance instead of human error
AttributePerson ApproachSystem Approach
FocusErrors and violationsHumans are fallible; errors are to be expected
Presumed CauseForgetfulness, inattention, carelessness, negligence“Upstream” failures, error traps; organizational failures that contribute to these
Countermeasure to applyFear, more/longer procedures, retraining, disciplinary measures, shamingEstablish system defenses and barriers
Options to avoid human error

Human error has been a focus for a long time, and many companies have been building programmatic approaches to avoiding this pitfall. But we still have others to grapple with.

Causal Chains

We like to build our domino cascades that imply a linear ordering of cause-and-effect – look no further than the ubiquitous presence of the 5-Whys. Causal chains force people to think of complex systems by reducing them when we often need to grapple with systems for their tendency towards non-linearity, temporariness of influence, and emergence.

This is where taking risk into consideration and having robust problem-solving with adaptive techniques is critical. Approach everything like a simple problem and nothing will ever get fixed. Similarly, if every problem is considered to need a full-on approach you are paralyzed. As we mature we need to have the mindset of types of problems and the ability to easily differentiate and move between them.

Root cause(s)

We remove human error, stop overly relying on causal chains – the next layer of the onion is to take a hard look at the concept of a root cause. The idea of a root cause “that, if removed, prevents recurrence” is pretty nonsensical. Novice practitioners of root cause analysis usually go right to the problem when they ask “How do I know I reached the root cause.” To which the oft-used stopping point “that management can control” is quite frankly fairly absurd.  The concept encourages the idea of a single root cause, ignoring multiple, jointly necessary, contributory causes let alone causal loops, emergent, synergistic or holistic effects. The idea of a root cause is just an efficiency-thoroughness trade-off, and we are better off understanding that and applying risk thinking to deciding between efficiency and resource constraints.

In conclusion

Our problem solving needs to strive to drive out monolithic explanations, which act as proxies for real understanding, in the form of big ideas wrapped in simple labels. The labels are ill-defined and come in and out of fashion – poor/lack of quality culture, lack of process, human error – that tend to give some reassurance and allow the problem to be passed on and ‘managed’, for instance via training or “transformations”. And yes, maybe there is some irony in that I tend to think of the problems of problem solving in light of these ways of problem solving.