Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems


I’ve been thinking a lot about systems science lately as I prepare to teach a new course in Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass.  My last two posts focused on systems thinking as a necessary means of understanding and addressing complex, real-world problems.

Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presents one of the simplist and most useful tools to help you get started.

This post examines how we can use systems thinking to understand the root cause(s) of complex problems (you know the BIG ones, like poverty, hunger, social inequity, environmental degradation, food safety……).  Lets see how this might work!

An Example

A few days ago, I got an email from one of my “foodie” listserves telling me that the Dole Food Company had recalled thousands of bags of pre-cut salad due to concerns about contamination by the bacteria listeria.

In fact, the Blomberg Businessweek Report stated:

“Dole Food Co.’s fresh vegetable unit has recalled more than 1,000 cases of bagged salads sold at Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in six states because of the possibility of listeria contamination.

“No illnesses have been reported.

“A representative for Dole could not be immediately reached for further comment.”

Okay, so that is interesting but might easily be overlooked (as long as you were not in one of the 6 states where the bagged salad had already been sold).   If you looked a little closer you might learn from the FDA statement that…

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea.

If we look at the frequency of food recalls, we might be surprised.  The Dole salad recall was NOT an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern that has become “the new normal” in the American food system.

Last week’s recall provides an opportunity to use a systems thinking tool to discover possible root causes for the recurrence of food contamination.  I’ve written about the “iceberg” tool earlier.

Here is a simple model depicting the relationship among events, patterns – and the structures (below the water line) that create an environment in which these patterns persist (even when they may not be in our best interest). If we apply the iceberg tool to this particular food recall, we can see that:

  1. The bagged salad recall is the event
  2. Multiple recalls of food every day is the pattern

So, next we will ask “what are the structures that result in the recurring patterns?”

Finding Structures

Structures are relatively permanent components of human organization that create patterns and events.  For example, a stop light at a cross roads and the government policy that requires drivers to stop at a red light are structures that result in a specific pattern of behavior.   Structures are powerful.  I described systemic structures in a previous blog. Structures are:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

In the case of fresh food recalls, these structures represent all that is good and bad about industrial agriculture, which is a system in which the farm is viewed as a machine (a very efficient and profitable one but still a machine) rather than a living system.  Some of the structures that result in food recalls are:

  1. Large corporate farms with the primary objective of making a profit
  2. Monoculture farming that creates large amounts of single food items
  3. Mechanically assisted harvest equipment (that spread bacteria)
  4. Washing and handling equipment that handles enormous quantities of fresh food quickly in shared water baths
  5. The corporately controlled global food distribution system that ships products by truck, rail, air and boat anywhere in the world
  6. The Food and Drug Administration inspection system and the policies that test, track and recall potentially contaminated food

These structures which support a very efficient industrial agricultural system will ALWAYS result in food recalls. To eliminate food recalls we have to change the structures that create an environment in which recalls are inevitable.

Recent efforts to do a better job tracking adulterated food have been proposed but do not address the root cause of the problem.   Proposals to irradiate food treat the problem after the contamination has occurred.  A recent British study on global food safety titled “Root Cause Analysis” missed the mark and only focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the same structures that ALWAYS result in food recalls.  Root causes are poorly understood.

To find root causes, you have to go deeper than the structures in the iceberg model.  Structures are created by how and what we think or “mental models“.

Finding root causes of patterns of behavior means we need to dig down to the level of mental models.  Once we understand the thinking that produces the structures that result in certain patterns of behavior, we can make better decisions.  In this case, the answer to reducing food recalls (along with many other problems created by industrial agriculture) is to create a safer and more sustainable food and farming system.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

3 thoughts on “Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems

  1. Pingback: Systems Thinking Tools: fixes that fail! | John Gerber

  2. Pingback: Lessons in Ag Systems Thinking | John Gerber

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