A Rant – Sloppy Use of Precision Instruments

I find myself in need of a new post category: Rant. I’m borrowing from Dennis Miller when I say, “I don’t want to get off on a rant here, but…”

…today I find myself deeply frustrated observing sloppy user of what I consider a precision instrument, the Think Reliability cause map.

I think it’s the engineer in me that can’t stand watching someone use a precision instrument (picture a caliper or a precision measuring cup) in a dismissive way.  Are they thinking they’re measurement is precise just because they’re using a precision instrument? They must not understand that the precision is in using the precise instrument in a precise way.  The Wikipedia entry on caliper warns,

Accuracy of measurement when using a caliper is highly dependent on the skill of the operator…”

That statement is just as true written,

Accuracy of the cause map is highly dependent on the skill of the person creating the map.”

I know for many of you this will be the first time you’ve heard about a cause map, so let me tell you a little about why you would want one, when you would use one, and what you can gain by using one.   I’ll use this summary picture, featured in the free Cause Map Template from Think Reliability,

You want a cause map when you’ve got a problem impacting the goals of your organization and you must determine why the problem occurred and prevent its recurrence.

You would create one to force yourself and your organization to reveal (and record) the details of the problem occurrence and why it happened (that information goes in the little yellow boxes in the picture above).

With a cause map you gain a rigorous processes that if followed drives you to think deliberately about your problem, validate your assumptions with evidence and look at the larger network of causes than you ever would through typical narratives and meetings to “get at the truth.”  If you follow the process, you can produce a qualitatively more accurate picture of the problem and offer yourself more solutions to choose from.

I define accuracy of the cause map as it’s reflection of what actually happened in reality–not what happened according to people’s perceptions.  I think it’s easy to tell just by looking at a cause map, without even reading the words, whether or not the analysis is even close to accurate to reality.

Here’s what I look for:

1.  How detailed is the mess of boxes and arrows?

In a map trying to be accurate you’ll see those salmon colored boxes hanging off of all of the yellow boxes.  While the yellow boxes contain the fact statements, the salmon colored boxes contain the evidence you’re using to prove that fact statement is true.  The evidence matters because without it, many people in cause mapping sessions (both knowingly and unknowingly) try to offer their mental fictions in place of reality.  Sir Issac Newton overcame this same problem when in response to Descartes inventing elaborate scientific theories entirely out of his imagination, Newton noted that science requires observational evidence and unless you have it you aren’t entitled to imagine possibilities.  Scientific progress has shown that you want to side with Newton and find your cause maps packed full of evidence.

2.  Have they included any information about the problems impact to the organization’s goals?

This look may require you to read some of the words on the cause map, but typically it doesn’t.   If the people preparing the cause map are following the Think Reliability method they would have a break out box on their cause map page that would likely include large bold headings for the What, Where, When and Goal of the problem.  All good cause maps have this box.  If yours doesn’t, ask why not.

3.  Have they tied the map to anyone or anything you can check?

This will require you to look at the words.  First I look for a name.  I want to find the name of the person who create the cause map, its authors name.  In his one day course on visual displays of information, Edward Tufte stresses the importance of putting your name on your visual displays of information.  He rants (that must be my word of the day) over the visuals produced by a faceless bureaucracy, unaccountable for their work.  Also look for any citations or references mentioned.  A cause map that doesn’t include a letter, technical manual, material specification or employee handbook note citation is living closer fiction than reality.  Without the evidence, you just can’t trust it.

I could go on and on; this is a rant after all and I truly love cause maps.  With a cause map used with precision, and in the right circumstances (e..g, just as a caliper is awesome for measure machined parts and useless for heart surgery), you can illuminate the dark corners of so many problems.  Sadly, in the wrong hands, when all the cause map is is words, arrows and boxes, I’d tell you to flip the paper over and start your own map on the back, this time doing it the right way.  That’ll at least make the old map good for something.

Think Reliability has a ton of excellent graphics, videos and more to teach you all you need to know about cause maps.  I especially like the recent Unaccompanied Minor cause map because it shows you typical errors in stopping at “failure to follow procedures” as your problem’s cause.  Will “pay better attention,” be the right solution?  Also, for a good look at the use of evidence, check out the Mars Orbiter cause map too.  Enjoy cause maps, good cause maps anyway.

Now going back to borrowing from Dennis Miller, I’ll end with “but that’s just my opinion.  I could be wrong.”  Check my evidence and observe for yourself.

2 thoughts on “A Rant – Sloppy Use of Precision Instruments”

  1. In Inspection, the Human factor with calibrated measuring equipment was referred to as “Feel”. The mitigation for “feel” involved trial measurements on known standards and a little “warm up drill”.

    Do you know of any “warm ups” that a Cause Mapper can use prior to the real thing?

    BTW, anyone that has read or watched “Where the Wild Things Roam” understands the necessity of a good rant from time to time (just don’t live there).

  2. I totally understand your rant. We instinctively create narratives to make sense of things. Without those salmon colored boxes, your simply capturing the narratives of individuals which may or may not be based on anything factual. The misused cause analysis could easily be imprecise.

    I like the idea of warm-up drills. If you’re going to take the time to do cause mapping, you might as well take a little extra time to get everyone in the right frame of mind.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top