A Guide to Implementing the Theory of
Undesirable Effects & Core Problems
Is the term firefighting familiar to you? The sort, that is, where you always seem to
be solving the same problem, solving it for this week and then re-solving
again next week also. When we do this
we can be fairly sure that we are addressing the symptoms and not the
underlying core issues or drivers of the problem. Let’s repeat a quote from the introduction
to this section; “Our nonsystemic ways of thinking are so damaging
specifically because they consistently lead us to focus on low-leverage
changes: we focus on symptoms where the stress is greatest. We repair or ameliorate the symptoms. But such efforts only make matters better
in the short run, at best, and worse in the long run (1).”
We need, maybe desperately need, a way to “drill
down” past the surface symptoms into the deeper underlying issues. Tools for doing this have been very limited
indeed. However the current reality
tree is a methodology that allows us to do exactly that. We start with the symptoms and build back
to the core issues.
Looking at it another way, a current reality tree is
a statement of an underlying core problem and the symptoms that arise from
it. It maps out a sequence of cause
and effect from the core problem to the symptoms. Most of the symptoms will arise from the
one core problem or a core conflict.
Remove the core problem and we may well be able to remove each of the
symptoms as well. Operationally we
work backwards from the apparent undesirable effects or symptoms to uncover
or discover the underlying core cause (2-4).
Taiichi Ohno used a similar but less developed
methodology called the “five why’s” to uncover the
root cause of a problem and to correct it.
The whole Toyota system was built on the practice and evolution of
this scientific approach (5). The
“five why’s” is not a superficial tool but one that is expected to dig down
to “the ultimate cause ‑ almost always an organizational problem” (6).
“Underneath the ‘cause’ of a problem, the real cause is hidden. In every case, we must dig up the
real cause by asking why, why, why, why, why. Otherwise, countermeasures cannot be taken
and problems will not be truly solved (5).”
Unfortunately the methodology doesn’t seem to have
been expanded in any formal sense into the broader interrelated cause and
effect that can be shown by the current reality tree in Theory of
Let’s draw a hypothetical tree to illustrate what we
are trying to say.
In this tree several symptoms are
mapped back to other common problems and in-turn a single core problem. Note too, that there is also a neutral
effect in the tree. The neutral effect,
while of its self is not negative, it is needed to sufficiently describe the
The current reality tree is the tool of choice in
seeking to gain agreement on the magnitude of the problem that we are
investigating and preliminary agreement on the core problem or core conflict
that is driving the agreed symptoms or undesirable effects.
Some people prefer to call the symptoms undesirable
effects or UDE’s for short. Let’s do
It’s the same tree, just a
How do we read such a tree? From the bottom to the top. “If ‘cause’ then ‘effect’”. And where there is an elipse
indicating a logical “and” we use “if ‘cause’ and if ‘other cause’ then
However we are missing something. There are no negative feedback loops –
so-called vicious cycles. Some people
would go so far as to say that if a current reality tree doesn’t have at
least one negative feedback loop then it isn’t a true current reality tree –
or that we don’t yet fully understand the true reality of the situation. Most often the symptoms that arise from the
underlying problem, in turn, cause the underlying problem to be worse than if
it occurred in isolation. We saw in
the page on people that feedback is an absolutely essential part of any
organization; we must include this in our map of the current reality.
We now have a fully described
current reality tree. For example a
small child has a reading problem (the symptom) because they are not
practicing reading sufficiently (the core problem), which is exacerbated by
the difficulty in reading in the first place (the feedback loop).
In business situations, however, it is quite
possible that we will not be aware of the core problem in the first instance,
and instead we will arrive at a core conflict. Let’s now see how that looks.
In fact we must expect this to be
more common. If we are aware of a core
problem and it is within our sphere of control or even influence, then we
will try to do something about it.
However, consider the case of a core conflict. Even when we are in total control of the
situation we may let the conflict continue to exist because both of the
entities Neutral Effect A and Neutral Effect B are required in order to
satisfy something else. The entities
that give rise to all the problems are not perceived to be a problem by
Constructing a current reality tree is the first and
most critical step on the path to improvement, because it makes us verbalize
the symptoms and the underlying causes; down layer by layer to the real core
problem or conflict. If we know the
real underlying problem and can work out how to overcome it, then we have a
very simple and powerful way of overcoming our symptoms.
Although we read a current reality tree from bottom
to top, we build it from top to bottom.
An explanation of how to is here.
Most often the construction of a current reality
tree makes us aware of a number of conflicts, and the tool to use in dealing
with conflicts or dilemmas is a cloud.
Let’s have a look at that next.
(1) Senge, P.
M. (1990) The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning
organization. Random House, pp 64
H. W., (1997) Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints: a systems approach to
continuous improvement. ASQC Quality
Press, pp 62-119.
H. W., (1998) Breaking the constraints to world class performance. ASQ Quality Press, pp 69-102.
L., (1999) Thinking for a change: putting the TOC thinking processes to use.
St Lucie Press/APICS series on constraint management, pp 143-169.
(5) Ohno, T., (1978) The Toyota production system:
beyond large-scale production. English
Translation 1988, Productivity Press, pp 17-18 & 126-127.
(6) Womack, J. P., Jones, D. T., and Roos, D.,
(1990) The machine that changed the world.
Simon and Schuster, pg 153.
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