February 14, 2020 | Mark Paradies

Scientific Method and Root Cause Analysis

Is the Scientific Method the ONLY
Root Cause Analysis Method?

I had someone tell me that the ONLY way to do root cause analysis was to use the Scientific Method. They said: “After all, that is the way that all real science is performed.”

Being an engineer (rather than a scientist), I had a problem with this statement. After all, I had done/reviewed thousands of root cause analyses, and I had never used the scientific method even once. Was I wrong? Is the scientific method really the only answer? Is it even a good answer?

Definition of the Scientific Method

First, what is the Scientific Method?

Some say the scientific method was invented in the 17th century and was the reason that we progressed beyond the dark ages. Others claim that the terminology “scientific method” is a 20th-century invention. Who cares when it was invented? How is it defined?

That isn’t an easy question to answer. There are many definitions (methods that call themselves “the scientific method”). Google “scientific method.” See how many different models you find. I found 981,000,000 results with various models.

Maybe the simple model shown at the start of this article is good enough. In that case, the “hypothesis” is obviously an essential part of the scientific model.

Video Discussion About Scientific Method

Before I share the complete article, here is a video by Benna Hughes and Ken Reed that discusses the topic…

Now for the rest of the article…

Scientific Method for Root Cause Analysis

The most common way to use the scientific method for root cause analysis is to do a little digging (evidence collection), develop a hypothesis, and then do some testing to gather more evidence to either prove or disprove the hypothesis. Is that (according to the expert) the ONLY method to perform root cause analysis?

But wait. There is a problem with that method…

Confirmation Bias and the Scientific Method

What’s the problem with this hypothesis-testing model? People aren’t good at it. There’s even a scientific term for the problem people have disproving their own hypothesis: CONFIRMATION BIAS.

Google “Confirmation Bias” and then read for hours. NO – wait – STOP! Here is a short description of the problem:

When people develop a hypothesis that they believe in, they tend to selectively gather evidence to prove what they believe and disregard evidence that is contrary to their hypothesis. This is a natural human tendency – think of it like breathing. You can tell someone not to breath, but they will breath anyway.

However, some believe they can overcome this problem by teaching people to disprove all other theories and also look for evidence to disprove their theory. That’s what my expert friend explained to me.

Others believe they can think confirmation bias away. But you can’t. Why? Because it is hard-wired into your brain (see THIS LINK).

So, telling yourself not to fall into the trap of only seeing the evidence you want to see won’t work.

But what about developing all possible hypotheses and then checking them? That doesn’t work, either. Why? How long would it take you to develop and prove or disprove all possible theories? Do you know ALL possible ways something could happen? REALLY?

The biggest problem that accident investigators face is limited knowledge.

Limited Knowledge

For a decade, we took a poll at the start of each root cause analysis class we taught. We asked:

“How many of you have had any type of formal training
in human factors or why people make human errors?”

The answer was always less than 5%. In a 20 person class, we might have one person with some previous training.

Then we asked:

“How many of you have been asked to investigate
incidents that included human errors?”

That answer was always close to 100%.

Think about this:

How many of these investigators could hypothesize ALL the potential causes for a
human error and how could they prove or disprove them ALL?

That’s one simple reason why the scientific method is not the only way, or even a good way, to investigate incidents and accidents.

Need more persuading? Read these articles by other authors on the problems with the scientific method:

The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete

The Scientific Method is a Myth

What Flaws Exist Within the Scientific Method?

Is the Scientific Method Seriously Flawed?

What’s Wrong with the Scientific Method?

Problems with “The Scientific Method”

That’s just a small handful of the articles that you could read. I hope that is enough to convince you.

Famous People Who Got the Wrong
Answer Using the Scientific Method

Let me assume that you didn’t read any of the articles posted above. Therefore, I will provide a convincing example of what’s wrong with the scientific method.

Isaac Newton, one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, developed the universal law of gravity. Supposedly he did this using the scientific method. And it worked on apples and planets. The problem is, when atomic and subatomic matter was discovered, the “law” of gravity didn’t work. There were other forces that governed subatomic interactions.

Enter Albert Einstein and quantum physics. A whole new set of laws (or maybe you called them “theories”) that ruled the universe. These theories were proven by the scientific method. But what are we discovering now? Those theories aren’t quite “right” either. There are things in the universe that don’t behave the way that quantum physics would predict. Thus, Einstein was wrong!

So, if two of the smartest people around – Newton and Einstein – used the scientific method to develop answers that were partially right but wrong and almost everyone believed what they “proved” … what chance do you and I have to develop the right answer during our next incident investigation? Could we “prove” a cause that really was not a cause?

Scientific Method Isn’t Needed for Root Cause Analysis

Now for the good news.

Being an engineer, I didn’t start with the scientific method when developing the TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis System.

Instead, I took an engineering approach. But you don’t have to be an engineer (or a human factors expert) to use it to understand what caused an accident and what you can do to stop a similar accident from happening in the future.

Being an engineer, I had my fair share of classes in science. Physics, math, and chemistry are all part of an engineer’s basic training. But engineers learn to go beyond science to solve problems (and design things) using models that have limitations. A useful model can be properly applied by an engineer to design a building, an electrical transmission network, a smartphone, or a 747 without applying the limitations of quantum mechanics.

Also, being an engineer I found that the best college course I ever had that helped me understand accidents wasn’t an engineering course. It was a course on human factors. A course that very few engineers take.

By combining the knowledge of high-reliability systems that I gained in the Nuclear Navy with my knowledge of engineering and human factors, I developed a model that could be used by people without engineering and human factors training to understand:

  • what happened during an incident,
  • how it happened,
  • why it happened, and
  • how it could be prevented from happening again.

We have been refining this model (the TapRooT® System) for over thirty years. Making it better and more usable. Using the feedback from tens of thousands of users around the world to constantly improve it. We have seen it applied in a wide variety of industries to effectively solve equipment and human performance issues. We have used it to improve safety, quality, production, and equipment reliability. These are real-world tests with real-world success (see the Solution tab above and the Industries section for the success stories for each industry).

Better Way to Find Root Causes

So, the next time someone tells you that the ONLY way to investigate an incident is the scientific method, just smile and know that they may have been right in the 17th century, but there is a better way to do it today.

If you want, you can suggest they try the TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis System. Tell them to learn about it by attending a TapRooT® Course. There is the Essential Course – a 2-Day Course. Or, if they want to learn more, there is 5-Day TapRooT® Advanced Root Cause Analysis Team Leader Training. See the schedule for public courses HERE. Or CONTACT US about having a course at your site.

Expert Should Disprove His Own Hypothesis

Back to the expert that said the scientific method was the ONLY way to perform a root cause analysis and that you should overcome confirmation bias by trying to disprove your own hypothesis.

He should try it!

His hypothesis is that the scientific method is the ONLY way to find root causes.

He could DISPROVE his hypothesis by attending a TapRooT® Course.

Then he could see that there is another way … a more reliable way … to find root causes. That would disprove his hypothesis.

The only problem is that he probably will never try it. Which disproves his hypothesis (that he can overcome confirmation bias by thinking about it).

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Show Comments

One Reply to “Scientific Method and Root Cause Analysis”

  • David Rawls says:

    The main problem with the scientific method is that it is all about confirmation bias. No one theory can account for all the data an experiment produces. Science is about selecting the data that conforms to a theory and calling the rest of the data “noise.”

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