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Teaching Critical Thinking as the Foundation for a Root Cause Analysis Methodology

Updated: Oct 16

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to critical thinking. The first is that of the philosophers. To them, critical thinking is an ethereal and unattainable state of being that we can never fully reach in just one lifetime. It propels philosophers and PhDs to develop new theories and paradigms on how to think critically, which continue to stimulate discussions on the topic and generate research that will continue to advance our understanding of the subject. It seems that the more we study their theories, the farther we are from mastering the (perhaps unattainable) state of being a truly critical thinker.


A second school of thought is that of the practitioners. They are attempting to define critical thinking in ways that allow others to grasp the concepts and apply them to their day to day problems. This includes defining a set of skills that can be learned and practiced, and tools that enhance our ability to think more critically. Dr. Jones highlights this conundrum in his 2020 paper: “There is a continuous debate by experts in the field whether critical thinking is a skill or set of skills that can be learned or whether it is a developmental process.” [1]


It does not matter which side of the fence you are on, as both are worthy pursuits. As a practitioner, my own school of thought falls in line with those that are seeking tangible, teachable critical thinking tools and techniques that can be applied in a particular field of study. In 1990, Joseph Halpern (PhD in mathematics from Harvard and currently a professor of computer science at Cornell) wrote: “Critical thinking is not just a concept, but it is a process that involves solving problems through which decisions can be reached.” [2] That quote sums up nicely what I strive for when I teach critical thinking and complex problem solving. Over the years, a number of other scholars have published similar conclusions. “The focus should be on the active use of critical thinking, learning methods of addressing and practicing it, and exercising rational thinking through active engagements using the cognitive skills that bring thoughtful questioning methodologies.” [3]



To teach critical thinking in the context of supporting the investigation of complex problems means that its concepts have to be crystalized and taught in a way that students can readily "remember, understand and apply;" the first three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy on how we learn. The challenge, then, is to develop a practical definition of critical thinking that is simple enough to understand and implement. In 2015, I crafted a teachable definition of critical thinking that my students have been able to readily translate into action.


Critical thinking is: “the intellectually disciplined process of gathering, organizing and analyzing information, so we can make the best decisions or take the best course of action.”

The definition does not stray far from the definition provided by the U.S. National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking in 1987, but it provides a construct that can be broken down and taught, using concrete and repeatable examples of how to think more critically. And through the use of case studies, students can quickly progress through the first three stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy (remember, understand, apply) and develop a baseline level of proficiency. Each part of that definition is defined in the context of how specific skills can be applied within a complex problem-solving framework (i.e. a root cause methodology).


An Intellectually...” infers that the process of critical thinking does not rely on Artificial Intelligence or software. Rather, we must rely on our own ability to critically evaluate the situation and all available information, formulate the best possible questions, and interact with other subject matter experts to solve the problems. Each of these tasks cannot be replaced by software. It is here that we can make the point that: Artificial Intelligence is for answers; humans still have to ask the right questions.


“...Disciplined process for...” denotes that we are going to follow a rubric that can be learned and used in conjunction with problem solving. Organizations that struggle with finding the causes of their recurring problems may not be using a very disciplined process, opting for brainstorming or easter-egging their way to the most likely causes. Contrary to popular belief, trusting your gut or using your intuition is not rigorous and disciplined enough to solve the more complex problems, no matter what your level of experience. Some organizations are simply looking for a way to solve their problems as quickly as possible and get back to their mission critical tasks, but they end up only addressing the symptoms.


Gathering information” is a concept that can be readily taught, understood and applied. Before starting problem investigation, we can gather documents, procedures, operating logs, emails, witness statements and other information that we'll need to review. With enough information, we can develop focused, evidence-based lines of inquiry that will lead us to the deepest-seated causes of our problems.


Organizing information” refers to the use of any number of tools that allow us to organize and evaluate the information in a way that is best, based on the type of information. Some of the more powerful tools I routinely use for organizing information in a way that will help me develop key insights include Pareto charts, fault trees, affinity diagrams, process maps, KT-decision making matrices and the T-matrix. The better organized our information, the better we can analyze that information to develop insights that we can use during our root cause analysis.


Analyzing information” refers to a broad range of methods we use to analyze the information we have gathered and organized, the most fundamental of which is Cause & Effect Analysis. Over the last 10 years, my clients demanded faster and more accurate methods to get to the deepest-seated causes, which resulted in the development of the BlueDragon framework. This framework integrates many tools and techniques into a seamless approach that I call Hyper-Integrated Causal Analysis (HCA); a modern and lean method for conducting root cause analysis. HCA and the individual tools and techniques that go into the methodology can be taught, learned and mastered with enough practice. The tools and techniques include:


· Analysis of Defenses (the requirements and physical barriers that should have prevented the event)

· Comparative Timeline Analysis

· Task & Change Analysis

· Human Performance Evaluations

· Cause & Effect Analysis

· Common Cause Analysis

· Socratic Questioning

· Elements from the Anatomy of an Event

· Elements from Ishikawa (the Fishbone)

· Elements from Event & Causal Factors Charts


“...so we can make the best decisions or take the best course of action.” The outcomes of critical thinking are well-informed actions and decisions. The marriage of critical thinking and complex problem-solving effectively teaches students to develop the best possible questions using every bit of available information and insights from the critical review of data, and then, to use cause & effect analysis to identify the root causes. BlueDragon HCA uses critical thinking (and not a software application) as the foundation for our complex problem-solving methodology. The powerful combination allows us to identify the deepest-seated causes of even the most complex problems quickly and efficiently. And the results help us to make better decisions or put in place corrective actions that will prevent recurrence.


Imagine for a moment a world where, each year, a cadre of young professionals entered the workforce with 12 or more years of education and experience on the practical application of critical thinking and complex problem-solving…what a different world this would be.

If you would like additional information on dramatically improving the effectiveness of your root cause analysis, visit us at: https://dle-services.com/bluedragon

[1] Jones, 2020 [2] Halpern, 1990 [3] McPeck, 1981; Beyer, 1985; Halpern, 1998; Reid, 2009

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