An Engineer’s Approach to Riot Prevention

If you want to change the way people respond to you, change the way you respond to people.

(And other tools for problem solving that a 6 year old can understand)


  1. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving used for identifying the root causes of faults or problems.
  2. 5 Whys is an iterative question-asking technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.

Engineers employed in the manufacturing industry use these tools to solve problems related to the manufacturing process. These are simple and powerful tools designed to target the exact cause of the problem and fix it. Defects are not accepted in the manufacturing environment nor should rioting be accepted in a civilized society. I was prompted to write this post thanks to the lack of quality questions about why these events happen accompanied by absurd suggestions on how to fix them. My last post highlighted the importance of holding ones tongue until qualified to speak. Many of my Facebook friends would have been wise to read that post and heed its advice. Gene Ryan, President of a Local Fraternal Order of Police in Baltimore would have benefitted from the Real Man’s Mantra before criticizing the “rhetoric of protests” and suggesting “the images seen on television look and sound much like a lynch mob.” Real men know how to choose the best words, sir.

I am neither a police officer in a city with, in 2014, the 5th highest crime rate in the US nor impoverished and living in an urban slum so I will refrain from making suggestions about what the officers and the rioting citizens should have done in the situation. I am going to tell you what I am doing, why I am doing it, and why I think you should do the same, similar, or at least come up with a good reason why not. Our duty as intelligent and discerning citizens of the United States of America is to move this discussion forward pushing onwards to peaceful resolve. I am going to show you an engineering approach to solving the problems that resulted in our critical defect, The Baltimore Riots of 2015.

The first step is to establish the problem statement. Ask yourself the question What is the problem? For the context of this article the problem is a riot. What is the root cause of this riot? It is at this juncture that productive discourse stops and political, religious, and socioeconomic biases intervene. It is human nature to proselytize and I have observed similar discourse in the manufacturing environment. People can’t make reasonable judgements based on what they do not know. Further, not having a comment or opinion on the matter leaves one open to criticism of their ineptitude.  The old saying, “Tis better to be thought a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” is soon to be a heretical statement. This type of environment creates a condition where it is better (at least for the commenter) to make a poor judgement rather than no judgement at all. These flawed comments are espoused on social media and 24 hour news networks thus exponentially increasing the number of people who believe this collection of flawed opinions to be divinations from above. What we end up with with is a range of emotionally charged opinions and millions of people all believing their own to be the “truth“.  All the while rioters continue to loot.

I love the scenes in the movie Philadelphia when Denzel Washington’s character would say, “explain it to me like I am a 6 year old.” Anyone can making something complicated and in the process obfuscate its meaning. Enter the 5 whys, an iterative process with the sole purpose of getting to the root cause of the problem. Those of you with children go through this process often I am sure. “Mom, why doesn’t the cat like water…” The Japanese are masters of many crafts, automobile manufacturing being just one of them, so it is no surprise that the 5 whys have origins in Japan. From wikipedia,

The technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies.

Here is a simple example, also from Wikipedia, that should give you a better idea of what this process looks like.

Problem: The vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

It would be tempting if your teenage son was the last person to drive the car before you found it in the driveway dead. Of course this would also be the same day you have a HUGE (and utterly insignificant) meeting/conference call at work AND you are already running late.

How might the predictable parent react?

They take an emotionally charged subject (teens driving automobiles) and they associate with what they know (teens are not responsible drivers) and they project fault onto an easy target with little means for recourse (teenage son). And the root cause is…

Irresponsible teenage driver MUST have either left the lights on, the radio on, or possibly the lights and the radio on. They did this because they were no doubt listening to heavy metal music while having sex in the back seat high on a combination of bath salts, marijuana, and Red Bull infused vodka popsicles. The solution?

  1. Cars privileges = revoked
  2. Heavy Metal music = denied
  3. Sex & Drugs = Random drug screening and monthly checks for all venereal diseases.

Forgive the hyperbole, but you get the idea. Emotionally charged issues combined with irrational decision making is a recipe for Heavy Metal disaster.

(Before I lose anyone who has made it this far I know that it has not been proven that the police killed Freddie Gray. For the purposes of this article Freddie Gray’s death will be the first why. That he was in police custody at the time of his death is indicative of gross negligence if not foul play.)

Problem: People are rioting in Baltimore.

  1. Why? – A person was killed by the police. 
  2. Why? – The person ran from the police.
  3. Why? – The person was scared of the police.
  4. Why? – The police are seen as enforcer’s rather than protectors.
  5. Why? – 24 hour news shows and mainstream media outlets publish a disproportionate number of stories depicting police officers harming the public rather than helping them.

Is this really the root cause of why people are rioting in Baltimore? No, but I would say it is close to being the root cause of why Freddie Gray was killed. I challenge anyone who takes the time to read this to submit your own 5 whys in the comments below or an email to me. Lets open up the discussion and generate some meaningful feedback. Make an effort to THINK rather than to simply POST someone else’s thoughts. Take the time to EXPRESS what you think and why. The 24 hour news force is a powerful one but it is an easy one to turn off. Leverage our digital age of interconnectedness and spread the message of THOUGHT.

“Think for yourself and question authority.”

Will Conkwright

Delray Beach, FL

May 5, 2015