What for? The question that uncovers final things.

We often come across situations where something has gone wrong, or an end result is one that we don’t particularly like. We can see something is not right.

For example, a machine may be producing a large number of defective parts, a person may be taking a lot of sick leave or there may be delays in handing over tasks from one person to another.

These indicators are symptoms that something is wrong. In medicine, such a symptom would indicate the presence of a disease. In life and work, it indicates that something is not working right.

If we look at the issue as the resolution of a fault or a problem then one method to fix the problem is to identify the root cause of the problem.

The root cause can be defined as the “basic cause of something”. This is the fundamental reason for why a problem occurs. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a formal method to find root causes and correct them.

The steps in RCA are (in essence).

  1. Scope the problem and what you are trying to prevent.
  2. Collect data.
  3. Review the data.
  4. Work out what happened by asking “why” at each stage of the failure.
  5. The root causes are the ones that, when eliminated, will prevent the failure from happening again.

RCA is generally applied to problems in organisations. Factories will use it to understand why something went wrong in a process. The National Health Service (NHS) uses it to find out what went wrong in a patient care situation.

The point about a root cause is that it is a final cause – it does not lead back to something else that caused it in the first place.

This is a philosophical definition. A final cause can be thought of as the end goal of a thing, that for the sake of which a thing is done.

This makes final cause analysis (FCA) useful in looking at situations in general, not just problematical situations.

In RCA, the question to ask is “why?”. Why did X happen. Because of Y. Why did Y happen? Because of Z. Why did Z happen? Because it did. Z is the root cause.

In FCA the question to ask is “what for?” over and over again. Taking an example from the book “How much is enough”, you could ask:

  • What is that bicycle for?
  • To get me to work.
  • What is work for?
  • To make me money.
  • What is money for?
  • To buy me food.
  • What is food for?
  • To keep me alive.
  • What is life for?

Blank stare.

Life is not “for” anything. It just is.

So, from a philosopher’s point of view, before you know what you want from work, you need to know what you want from life, as that is the final cause of why you work.

Perhaps its possible to make better organisations by extending RCA to FCA and asking “what for?” much more.

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