Law #7: Cause and Effect are not Closely Related in Time and Space

We were warned.

Don’t go near flames. So if we did, we felt and saw the consequences immediately. Singed hair. Burned fingers. Sometimes, people did not live to tell their stories. Often horrific and fodder for news making. Any day. So, we also grew up believing that cause and effect are just that. Years later, as managers, we tend to think that the world works the same way. That cause and effect are closely related in space and time.

Don’t touch flames! We heard that was where the causes to our miseries lie.
Of course, that is still true.

Peter adds, the “effects”, the apparent symptoms that there are problems – drug abuse, unemployment, labour migration, global conflicts, starving children, falling orders and sagging profits. By cause, it means the interaction of the underlying systems that is most responsible for generating the symptoms, and which, if recognised, could lead to changes producing lasting improvement.

However, in systemic issues, causes of resistant issues are distant in space as well as distant in time. It is telling us not to look for leverage near the symptoms or your problem. Go back upstream and in time to ferret out causes as distant as possible from your problem. The further it is, the more formidable and influential (and therefore cost-effective) will be the solution when applied to the problem. That notion is alien to us. It represents an anti-thesis. We assume, most of the time, that cause and effect are close in time and space.

Peter in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (pg 108-112) adds:

Story One – The Puddle on the Floor

You first notice the floor is wet. You look around for a bucket to catch the leak.

The floor turns dry again, but the drip persists. You next turn your attention following the drip upwards and notice the ceiling is wet. Well, you think we should patch the ceiling. That should stop the leak, you think. So, you do exactly that. It works.

After a few hours, the leak is back! You decide, enough is enough and choose to peer behind the ceiling and notice what is causing the water to drip on to it. You see that a water pipe that runs over that part of the ceiling has sprung a leak. “Ah,” we say, and so you spring into action and seal off the pipe where it is leaking. It works! Job well done, you tap yourself on your back and go about with your day.

You come back, the next day and the leak is back. Now it is irritating you, and you are toying with ideas to move out of this house. Still, you say, let us try something different this time. Let us replace the pipe and the joint and see if that works before changing houses. You decide that. And hey, presto! It is working. You dust yourself off, clean up the mess, re-patch the ceiling, wipe off the floor and go about your day.

Days pass and turn into weeks. Three weeks later, you notice the wet patch on the ceiling is back again. Notice, however, the further along the cause-effect chain you go, the more effective the solution becomes.

Armed with this new knowledge, you decide to investigate. What is causing the pipe to like? You now trace back the pipe to our next-door neighbour’s house and notice something is flowing through it, that is causing your pipe to leak, your ceiling to drip and so the puddle on the floor.

Of course, it would not be easy to “talk to” Zimbabwe about the labour migrant issues in Botswana. Creating generative conversations is difficult. So what is our option? Take the easy way out. Keep mopping up the illegal migrants through police raids, put them on to buses and send them back home.

When one nation attempts to attract foreign investors over that of its neighbours, expect illegal migrations to follow. Create enough jobs and markets for the products it can produce for citizens as well as foreigners (that way generate revenues, GDP and income taxes rather than incur repatriation costs). That way, the latter would help grow the economies back at their nations and wipe out migrations eventually.

Story Two – At the Office – It’s the Gabungie By Golly by Rick Ross

It’s 2:35 pm on a Tuesday, about an hour before the shift change at a local manufacturing plant, and Dave and Sarah are touring the plant.

Dave, the foreman, is helping Sarah, a new manager (and a systems thinker), learn about plant operations.

Suddenly, Dave sees a puddle of oil on the floor. He grabs the nearest member of the line crew and says, “Hey! There’s oil on the floor! For crying out loud, somebody could slip on that and break their…! Would you clean that up?”

When Dave’s finished, Sarah (the systems thinker) breaks in with a quiet question, “Dave, why is there oil on the floor?”

“Yeah,” Dave repeats to the crew member. “How’d the oil get on the floor?”

The crew member replies, “Well, sir, the gabungie’s leaking.”

They all automatically lookup. And, sure enough, there’s a visible leak up there in the gabungie.

“Er, okay,” Dave sighs. “Well, clean up the oil and get the gabungie fixed right away.”

Sarah pulls Dave aside and murmurs, “But, er, why is the gabungie broken?”

Dave says, “Yeah, well, the ga-” and turns to the crew member. “Why is the gabungie broken?”

“The gaskets are defective.”

“Oh well, then, look,” Dave says. “Here. Clean the oil up, fix the gabungie, and, uh, do something about the gaskets!”

Sarah adds: “And why are the gaskets defective?”

“Yeah,” Dave says. “Just out of curiosity, how is it we’ve got defective gaskets in the gabungie?”

The crew member says, “Well, we were told that purchasing got a great deal on those gaskets.”

Dave sees Sarah open her mouth, but this time he’s way ahead of her. “Why did purchasing get such a great deal?”

“How should I know?” says the crew member, wandering off to find a mop and a bucket.

Dave and Sarah return to Dave’s office and make some phone calls. It turns out the plant has a two-year-old policy in place that encourages purchasing at the lowest possible price. Hence, the defective gaskets (of which there is a five-year supply) along with the leaking gabungie and the pool of oil.

Besides, this policy is almost certainly causing other problems throughout the organisation, not closely related in time or space to the cause. This cause, therefore, leads us to believe they are not connected. That is where the leverage would lie.