Fix causes, not the symptoms of problems

While spending some downtime watching TED talks, I stumbled across one about how to dry your hands in toilets such that you only need one paper towel. What jumped out at me about this straightforward technique of flicking your hands and the water off 12 times before drying was how an entire industry had been created to help the green agenda, but that it was solving a symptom, not the cause.

Being Green
In the UK and many parts of the world, office, shop and restaurant toilets install high-powered air blowers to dry your hands. The idea behind these devices is that they use less electricity than traditional hot air blowers and less than paper towels.

Fixing the symptom
By fixing the symptom of too much energy being used to dry people’s hands, you are overlooking the cause that the hands are wet in the first place. This may sound odd, as clearly, the hands are wet as you’ve just washed them, but as the TED talk discusses, there is a simple way that people can improve the root cause of the problem with zero technology.

What is the harm, then? Certainly not the profit margins of the hand dryer manufacturers, I’m sure. Let’s consider the bigger picture, though. These new devices had to be designed and manufactured, often replacing working old-style hot air blowers because the owners wanted to save on running costs or be seen as doing the right green thing. While they use less energy if you take in the total environmental cost of ownership, was it better to make these, or would a simple education campaign of posters and stickers in toilets that suggest people flick their hands 12 times?

Fixing the cause
We should never forget that it can be the symptoms that seem the most obvious and that you need to dig deeper to understand the cause. Once you find the cause, you might need a creative solution, like making your hands dryer before you try to dry them properly.

In the past, while working in an organisation with a high-quality culture, we would analyse all software defects that reached the system test (pre-agile) or the customer. We used the simple Five Whys questioning technique to dig into the issue and why it escaped. We found this invaluable to get past the symptoms of the issue and find the cause. Sometimes this highlighted plain old human error. Other times we discovered real insights into problems.

Think 12 flicks!
Since watching the talk, whenever I use two paper hand towels, I ask myself, “why was this?” Every time, it’s because I didn’t flick 12 times. In the same way, when you see a defect or issue that needs to be addressed, think of flicking 12 times and thinking beyond the obvious that is staring you in the face. What is the underlying cause; fixing the symptom might be a quick fix, but all you are doing is storing up issues for the future.