A Framework

The first step in problem solving is root cause analysis. Identifying the root cause requires a framework. A simple set of questions, the answers to which allow you to rule out probable causes, so that you can investigate only the probable causes you can't rule out. I have watched as team members exercise a brute force framework, investigating each identified cause to conclusion in sequence, instead of using a more optimized approach. I have observed colleagues spend hours investigating problems based on a single assumption about the root cause of the problem, only to realize that their assumption was incorrect, and they could have proven it in 15 minutes.

Try the following framework:

1) Carefully document the symptom that is manifest.
— make sure that you separate the symptom from any speculation as to cause.

2) Do you understand the system or portion of the system where the symptom is manifest?
— if not then engage someone who does – knowledge of the system is essential.

3) List out as many probable causes of the problem as you can think of.

4) For each probable cause, find the simplest way to prove that it is not the cause.
— ask yourself the question – if this were the cause, what else would need to be true?
— ask yourself the question – if this were the cause, what could not possibly also be true?

5) Select some optimized order or sequence to disprove
— the goal would be to disprove the most likely first, or to let the work of each proof build on the last – whichever feels more efficient.

6) Disprove each probable cause

7) The remaining probable causes must be investigated

8) Do not stop at one probable cause.
— a symptom can be the result of more than one cause.
— an occurrence of a symptom can be the result of exactly one cause.

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