An engineer’s perspective on the Orlando shooting


It’s unfortunate, but we find ourselves talking about another shooting where multiple people were killed.  The most recent event was at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida that left 49 people dead.  The shooter was a Muslim of Afghan descent and also had apparent ties to ISIS.  His ex-wife said that he suffered from some mental problems that turned him from a normal, happy man into a negative and aggressive one.

And of course, just hours after the shooting, plenty of people used it as an opportunity to push their own agendas.  Some say that it’s due to radical Islam, others blame it on a lack of gun control, and some go straight to claiming it was a government conspiracy.

So what was the cause of the Orlando shooting?

I don’t know.  How could I?

But I do believe that I know a way to find the answer.  Being a reliability engineer at a process plant, I do have a good perspective on analyzing problems.  When I explain to someone what I do as a reliability engineer, I typically say, “When the stuff that’s in the pipes comes out of the pipes, I help tell them how to fix it and I also tell them how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The end of my job description—the “make sure it doesn’t happen again”—is the important part for our discussion here.  We’ve seen numerous shootings in the United States and around the world in recent years and people correctly ask the question “Why does this keep happening?”  The answer is simple: the root cause has not been identified and corrected.  In my area of work, the process to identify the causes of problems is root cause failure analysis (RCFA).

While not every problem I have to solve is complicated and often has obvious root causes not requiring a formal analysis, RCFA is a very important process for correcting problems.  And when those root causes are identified and corrected, they typically tend to have positive impacts in other areas as well (e.g. eating healthier to lose weight but it also helps skin complexion).

The general RCFA process involves identifying a problem, gathering information about the problem, and then sorting each piece of datum into categories.  Then you begin to ask “Why?” to each piece of datum.  When the answer is found, continue to ask “Why?” until it no longer makes sense to ask (e.g. “because the sun rises in the east”).  If done correctly (read: honestly), the root causes will be revealed and proper corrective actions should be taken to eliminate them from happening again.  Often what you believed to be the causes in the beginning turn out to be incorrect.  And multiple groups analyzing the same problem should come to the same root causes.

What happens when the root cause is either not identified correctly or not properly corrected?  The problem, of course, happens again.  But that doesn’t given license to someone to say, “See?  They didn’t agree with what I said the problem was, so I’m right!”  Since unless the root cause is identified and corrected so that it no longer occurs, you cannot be sure what the root cause is.  So after this shooting in Orlando, it is probably incorrect to say, “This is what happens when you don’t have stricter gun control laws” or “This is what happens when the President isn’t tough enough on radical Islam.”

You don’t need an engineering degree or to work in the petrochemical industry to understand this.  It makes a lot of sense to anyone.  The issue is whether or not people let their own emotions and preferences get in the way of truly solving the problem.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that these problems with gun violence are necessarily simple issues, but don’t let the complexity of the problem get in the way of performing a proper RCFA.  If anything, the more complex a problem is, the more necessary it is to do a proper RFCA.

And do not expect an answer right away.  These often take time.

Unfortunately, the biggest difficulty with trying to solve problems like shootings is not that we don’t have the patience for a good RCFA to be performed.  The problem is that they are almost never performed or at least are not performed by a group or organization that would get any sizeable attention.  But at least now you have more reasons to be skeptical of those trumpeting silver bullet solutions right after a disaster occurs.