A Modern Approach To Solving Today’s Complex, Recurring Problems

Author: Rob De La Espriella, BD3, CEO and Founder, BlueDragon IPS

Traditional Approaches To Solving Workplace Problems Are Not Working


The harsh reality is that most tools and techniques used today to investigate organizational and programmatic failures, human performance deficiencies, equipment failures and accidents/incidents originated in the 20th century. 

For example, the “5 Whys” root cause analysis technique was developed in the 1930s for the automobile manufacturing industry. The Fishbone diagram came about in the 1940s. While these tools provided value in the past, they were designed for less complex times.

Consider that we are now in the 21st century. Why are many regulated industries, including aerospace, defense, energy, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, still relying on antiquated problem-solving methods? 

As a result, these industries experience incredibly high instances of recurring human errors, organizational and programmatic breakdowns, accidents and incidents, quality issues, as well as insurance claims, fraud, waste and abuse cases. Mostly because organizations fail to uncover and address their deepest underlying causes.

Let’s consider an example. Over a period of five years, a high-tech manufacturing company experienced 12 separate events involving electrical arc flash that resulted in severe injuries to technicians. The company used the “5 Whys” for incident investigations and kept identifying “inadequate PPE” and “lack of adherence to procedures” as root causes. 

However, had they looked deeper, they would have uncovered larger institutional problems related to production pressures, inadequate staffing and deficiencies in their safety culture. And they left open the possibility that a future event could cause a fatality.

A New Breed Of Problems In The Modern Workplace Is Driving The Need To Update Our Approach


Today’s modern socio-technical working environments put tremendous pressure on human performance and create a new breed of intricate, multifaceted problems. This includes the proliferation of high technology; matrixed organization charts where we serve multiple bosses with a plethora of collateral duties; a large volume of regulations, requirements, programs, processes and procedures; the advent of Big Data and data analytics; and certainly not least, the local, regional and national cultural pressures and political correctness in the modern workplace. Solving these modern, complex problems requires a modern approach.

Six Keys To Solving Complex Problems In The 21st Century


Forward-thinking problem solvers are adopting new approaches that incorporate contemporary concepts that allow a more holistic, human-centric approach, captured below in six keys to solving the complex problems of the 21st century.

1. Critical Thinking

The unbiased and intellectually disciplined process of gathering, organizing and analyzing data, evidence and information so we can draw insights and solve problems. Critical thinking is one of two anchors for complex problem-solving.

2. Systems Thinking

The second of two anchors for solving complex problems. Using systems thinking, we can conduct a systems inventory of affected programs, processes and procedures to establish a holistic approach that attacks problems from multiple perspectives.

3. Unbiased Questions

Generating unbiased, evidence-based questions that are anchored to specific standards for performance and insights from data analysis create more effective lines of inquiry.

4. Analysis Of Defenses

An assessment of the effectiveness of the line of defenses put in place to guard us from hazards and help us succeed in managing our complex operations to determine where they failed. This is essential to our holistic approach and must be conducted every time.

5. In-Depth Causal Analysis

Not the same as data analysis, this approach uncovers the small set of deep-seated causes that have far-ranging effects and will continue to generate events. As previously stated, there are not thousands of new root causes creating thousands of recurring problems each year.

6. Effective Corrective Actions

Incorporating modern concepts (such as the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls and Lean Mistake-Proofing) to produce actions more likely to prevent recurrence. Traditional corrective actions that include more procedure requirements and training have not done much to prevent recurrence.

The Benefits Of Modernizing Your Problem-Solving System

A modern approach to solving recurring problems allows organizations to finally move beyond mere event causes and address the deepest underlying sources of recurring issues. The payoff includes:

• Modernized Mission Assurance: A system that accounts for modern workplace dynamics.

• Enhanced Critical Thinking: A system that creates stronger problem-solvers and decision makers.

• Continuous Improvement Culture: A system that proactively assesses and improves our line of defense.

• Higher Reliability: A system that eliminates latent organizational and programmatic weaknesses, reducing problem recurrence and improving consistency of operations.

• Reduced Operating Costs: A system that keeps personnel working on mission-critical tasks and not on recurring problems.

• Stronger Public Trust: An advanced problem-solving system that builds public trust and confidence, leading to a competitive advantage and improved market share.

• Greater Regulatory Trust: A system that proactively self-identifies and addresses complex problems, demonstrates credibility and increases regulator trust and confidence.


In closing, we must acknowledge some cold, hard truths. Traditional problem-solving tools have proven less than effective for preventing recurring failures in today’s complex landscape, resulting in preventable accidents and fatalities, costing industries money each year. The modern sociotechnical workplace has bred a new class of complex and challenging problems that require innovative tactics with the latest advancements in holistic problem-solving.

Rather than chasing symptoms with outdated reductionist tools and techniques, organizations should update their performance improvement and corrective action programs with methodologies that are designed to solve problems in the 21st century. By addressing those systemic gaps, they can achieve the fundamental transformation needed to prevent recurring issues, avoid preventable tragedies and meet the challenges of the modern era.

For more information on critical thinking and complex problem-solving, watch this video on our BlueDragon YouTube Training Channel

About the Author:

Rob De La Espriella, BD3, CEO and Founder, BlueDragon IPS

Rob De La Espriella, is a former nuclear submarine officer, a regulator with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a senior manager at commercial nuclear power plants. Since 2007, he has been a Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Energy and their contractors. In 2023, Rob was accepted into the Forbes Business Council, contributing articles and commentary to help businesses reach their full potential.  Rob is also a leading expert in solving complex human-centric problems in modern, socio-technical work environments, and has re-defined how organizations solve problem.

Contact us at: info@bluedragon1.com Visit our website at: www.bluedragon1-ips.com

© 2024 DLE Technical Services, LLC. All rights reserved.  

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