Classic Vs. Modern Definition of Root Cause | Which is Better?

A post on LinkedIn by Mark Paradies of TapRoot recently discussed the difference between the ‘old fashioned’ definition of root cause, and the more modern version. Mark’s post, and the discussion it generated, were quite interesting and offer a lot of important insights that managers, business owners, and others can benefit from. Root cause is a key concept for many different strategies in almost every industry, and is essential for eliminating waste.

Classic Definition

According to the Mark, the classic definition of root cause is:

“The most basic cause (or causes) that can reasonably be identified that management has control to fix and, when fixed, will prevent (or significantly reduce the likelihood of) the problem’s recurrence.”

While it may be a little ‘wordy,’ it certainly does seem to be an accurate definition. It covers not only what the root cause is (the most basic cause…) but also how to identify it (something that management has control to fix, and when fixed, it will prevent the problem…). People who have used this definition since the 1980’s found it to be quite sufficient, and some were resistant to moving to the updated definition.

Modern Definition

The modern definition was proposed in 2006, and is as follows:

“The absence of best practices or the failure to apply knowledge that would have prevented the problem.”

This is a much more concise definition, and takes a different approach to understanding what root cause means. Rather than pointing out attributes of a root cause, the new definition focuses on what is missing in a process. When something goes wrong, it is because there was no best practice, or it was not applied properly. With the right understanding, this can really help encourage companies and individuals to work toward not just identifying the root cause, but also coming up with effective best practices and using the knowledge gained to help prevent problems from occurring in the future.

Are There More Definitions?

While the post was focused on looking at these two definitions, a comment from Mark Festervand actually brought out an additional method for finding root causes. He commented that root causes,

“…can be determined quickly with the old 5 Why question and answer of the continuous Why question. –Mark Festervand

This is a very insightful comment. The ‘5 Whys’ have long been used to help get to the root cause of problems, especially on production lines. Asking why to find the root cause, however, isn’t the definition of ‘root cause’ itself. With this in mind, I’d have to say it is best to stick to one of the primary definitions when talking about root causes, and then using the continuous why (and other) strategies when actually working on finding the root cause of a particular problem.

Pushing for a Mindset Change

There were a lot of great comments made on the post, but in my opinion, the one by Alexandre John Bolay really hit the nail on the head. He said,

“I agree that a mindset change is needed in our industry….” He then went on to say, “The new definition drives a positive thinking process… –Alexandre John Bolay

This is really the main reason why the new definition was developed. It helps to change the way people think about root cause. It moves from being something people HAVE to do to try to prevent problems in the future, to something that people GET to do in order to not only avoid problems, but improve their day to day work.

As root causes are identified and best practices are put in place, employees at all levels can enjoy a safer and more efficient work environment. Of course, management and business owners will also love the improved efficiency and elimination of waste (typically in the form of down time).

What’s the Verdict?

After reading through the post (which I highly recommend to everyone) as well as the comments, I come down strongly on the side of the modern definition. That is not to say, however, that the older definition does not have value. The older definition can certainly still be helpful in advising people on what steps should be taken to arrive at the root cause, so best practices can be developed.


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