Root Cause Analysis (RCA)

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This article explains a root cause analysis in a practical way. After reading you will understand the basics of this powerful problem solving approach.

What is a root cause analysis

Root cause analysis is a method of problem solving that aims at identifying the root causes of problems or incidents. RCA is based on the principle that problems can best be solved by correcting their root causes as opposed to other methods that focus on addressing the symptoms of problems.

Through corrective actions, the underlying causes are addressed so that recurrence of the problem can be minimized. It is utopian to think that a single corrective action will completely prevent recurrence of the problem. This is why root cause analysis is often considered to be an iterative process. Root cause analysis is used as a tool for continuous improvement.

If a root cause analysis is used for the first time, it is a reactive way of identifying and solving problems. This means that an analysis is performed after a problem or incident has occurred. By gaining experience with root cause analysis, its use changes from reactive to proactive, so that problems can be anticipated in time.

Root cause analysis is not a strictly defined methodology. There are many different tools, processes and philosophies that have been developed based on Root cause analysis. However, there are five RCA approaches that can be identified in practice:

  1. Safety-based root cause analysis – Its origin can be mainly be found in accident analyses, safety and healthcare.
  2. Production-based root cause analysis – Its origin can be mainly be found in the area of quality control and industrial manufacturing.
  3. Process-based root cause analysis – This is the follow-up from production and business processes.
  4. Failure-based root cause analysis – Its origin can be found in Engineering and maintenance.
  5. Systems-based root cause analysis – its origin can be found in the amalgamation of the approaches mentioned above and this is combined with ideas from change management, risk management and systems analysis.

Despite the fact that there seem to be no clear definition of the differences in the objectives among the various approaches, there are some common principles that can be considered to be universal. It is also possible to define a general process for performing an root cause analysis.

The basic process

The basic process consists of a number of basic steps. These corrective measures will lead to the true cause of the problem.

  1. Define the problem or the factual description of the incident. Use both qualitative and quantitative information (nature, size, locations and timing) of the results in question.
  2. Collect data and evidence and classify them along a time line of incidents until the eventual problem or incident is found. Each special deviation in the form of behaviour, condition, action and passivity must be recorded in the time line.
  3. Always ask ‘why’ to identify the effects and record the causes associated with each step in the sequence toward the defined problem or incident.
  4. Classify the causes within the causal factors that relate to a crucial moment in the sequence including the underlying causes.
  5. If there are multiple causes, which is often the case, document these, preferably in order of sequence for a future selection. Identify all other harmful factors.
  6. Think of corrective actions or improvement measures that will ensure prevention of recurrence with a sufficient degree of certainty. Explore whether corrective actions or improvement measures can be simulated in advance so that the possible effects become noticeable, also with respect to the other underlying causes.
  7. Think of effective solutions that can prevent recurrence of the causes and to which all involved colleagues can agree. These solutions must comply with the intended goals and objectives and must not cause any new and unforeseen problems.
  8. Implement the solutions (corrective actions) that have been made by consensus.
  9. Monitor the effectiveness of the solutions (corrective actions) closely and adjust if necessary.
  10. Other methods for problem-solving and problem prevention may be useful.
  11. Identify and address any other causes that may be harmful factors in the process.

Please note: steps three, four and five are the most critical part of the corrective measures because these have proved to be successful in practice.

Root cause analysis tools

Other well-known Root cause analysis techniques and tools are listed below:

Barrier analysis

This root cause analysis technique is often used in the industrial sector. It was developed to identify energy flows and focus on possible blocks for those flows in order to determine how and why the obstacles cannot prevent the energy flows from causing damage.

Current Reality Tree

This complex but powerful method developed by Eliahu M. Goldratt is based on representing causal factors in a tree structure. This method uses rules of logic. The method starts with a short list of the undesirable factors we see around us that will subsequently lead to one or more underlying causes.

Change analysis

This research methodology is often used for problems or accidents and demonstrates how the problem has presented itself from different perspectives.

5 times why

In the Japanese analysis method 5 whys the question ‘why’ is asked five times. The 5 whys technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, and was used to trace the root cause of the problems within the manufacturing process of Toyota Motors.

Fishbone diagram

This root cause analysis method is also known as the fishbone diagram. The Ishikawa diagram is a much preferred method of project managers to perform an root cause analysis.

Kepner Tregoe method

The Kepner-Tregoe Problem Analysis is a root cause analysis method is an approach based on facts in which the possible causes are systematically excluded in order to find the real cause.

RPR Problem Diagnosis

This is an ITIL aligned method designed to determine the root cause of IT problems.
More information

  1. Andersen, B., & Fagerhaug, T. (2006). Root cause analysis: simplified tools and techniques. ASQ Quality Press.
  2. Dankovic, D. D. (2001). Root Cause Analysis. Technometrics, 43(3), 370-371.
  3. Rooney, J. J., & Heuvel, L. N. V. (2004). Root cause analysis for beginners. Quality progress, 37(7), 45-56.

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