The Three Hows

If you have followed my blog, you know that I am somewhat critic of root cause analysis like the “5 Whys“, especially when applied to non-purely-technical issues.

On the other hand I am actually pretty much in favour of more systemic tools like the Cause-Effect Diagrams and the Thinking Process, despite the risk of using an oversimplified and/or incomplete version of these methods.

While preparing for my “Agile as a Systemic Change” presentation I realised one more detail that confirmed my skepticism in the 5 Whys: the lack of circularity!

One of the peculiar characteristics of a system is the presence of loops, i.e. cause-effect connections that end up creating a closed loop, reinforcing a certain situation, like this:

Cause Effect Diagram.png

These loops are exactly the features we search for in a system as they are the endemic and self-enforcing reasons of the behaviour of a system.

On the top of asking why – which is, in my view, a dangerous way to analyse a system – the 5 whys is a way to “go back” in the cause-effect chain for a while:

5 Whys 1.png
[The picture is built from right to left: we find A, we search for the cause finding B, we search for the cause of B we find C, …]

If we’re lucky we might even find a loop:

5 Whys 2.png

but if it happens it happens by pure chance.

What I recently used with some success is, instead, a technique I developed and called Three Hows, where, for each effect, I ask something like “How does effect A happen?”, and asking this questions at least three times but usually even more (“And how else does effect A happen?”, “And how else?”):

3 Hows.png

And then back for each cause of A:


Thus maximising the chances of finding a loop:


In this process, I refrain from asking “why” as a question and use “how”, though also “what” is a good alternative. Anyway, I try as much as possible to use the client’s language and the client’s reality, avoiding to add my content in the discussion, even in the form of a question.

As I said, I had some success with it and I will test it more on the field. At the same time, I am looking for your feedback: does it work for you? Either way, I’d love to hear your experiences with this.