Looking Through Broken Windows

Edward Deming led the application of root cause analysis to the quality movement in manufacturing through continuous process improvement. The process uses root cause analysis tools to determine what happened and why it happened and to identify and implement a solution to reduce the likelihood that the problem will occur again. The resulting solution either addresses a physical cause such as a material or machine failure; a human cause as a consequence of doing something wrong or not doing something that needed to be done; or an organizational cause in which a system, process, or policy used to make decisions or do work is faulty.

Our approach to medical issues is the easiest framework to understand the difference between symptoms and root causes. Usually before seeking treatment, we self-medicate to relieve the symptoms or try to ignore the symptoms with great hope that they will clear up and go away.  Only when there is no relief or the symptoms and/or pain worsens do we seek the root cause answer.  The pain medications and other remedies help us manage the symptoms so we can continue the requirements of life- breathing, moving, loving, working, learning, growing, succeeding.

Identifying and addressing the root causes of community and social issues is exponentially more complicated. The number of organizations and the amount of time, energy and funds invested in addressing the symptoms- poverty, unemployment, welfare abuse, school dropouts, apathy; etc., that have yielded only pockets of success after decades are hard evidence that we are at best managing the symptoms or at worst managing to live with the resulting pain.  Digging deeper to find and address root causes requires patience, time, energy and resources.  Most of which are painfully limited when the community comes together to resolve a long term, continuing problem.

Noted anthropologist, Margaret Mead stated that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  So, why are we falling short?  Why are we meeting ten and twenty years later and still discussing how to reduce or eliminate the same issues and new ones created by the old issues?  Perhaps we have not been digging deep enough.  Studies of psychology and human behavior tell us that all behavior is logical.   Behavior results from a thought.  If we want to change the behavior we must change the thought driving the behavior.  Perhaps this is where we pull back to manage the less complicated symptoms.  The enormity of the task can be overwhelming and there is a reluctance to interfere in the choices of others even when we are negatively impacted by the consequences of those choices.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the point at which ideas, messages, or behaviors of a population change rapidly.  Similar to an epidemic, contagious behavior is caused by a relatively small percentage of the population.  He argues that it is not necessary to change everyone, only a small percentage of the population to affect change.  As an example Gladwell cites the Broken Windows theory developed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling and implemented by New York City in response to the alarming crime rate.  According to the theory if a window is broken and left unrepaired then people walking by will assume no one cares and no one is in charge.  Then Mayor Rudi Giuliani and Police Chief William Bratton viewed graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling as equivalents to broken windows.  New York was messy and people were contributing to the “messiness.”  They determined that was the root cause of crime in New York City. The “messiness” was addressed at the basic levels and the crime rates dropped precipitously.

What messages are our “broken windows” sending? How do we look through them to find and eliminate the root causes of the “messiness” in our community and create a tipping point for change?

Loretta P Dodgen, Ed. D.

President, Multiple Choice, Inc.


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