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What Is Root Cause Analysis? System, Benefits, Types

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving method for the identification of root causes of problems. The technique provides outcomes that serve as a basis for creating a corrective strategy to prevent further recurrence of the same issue.

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving method for the identification of root causes of problems. The analysis technique provides outcomes that serve as a basis for creating a corrective strategy to prevent further recurrence of the same issue. A successful RCA aims to discover the root cause, understand and offer a permanent fix, and support continuous improvement. RCA may include other Lean techniques such as 5 Whys, Failure mode and effective analysis (FMEA), Change analysis, and Risk tree analysis.

To apply the root cause analysis, you need to describe the problem clearly, determine the root cause and causal factors, and establish a causal graph between the root cause and the problem. A root cause is a factor whose removal prevents the recurrence of the problem, while a causal factor affects the outcome, but it does not prevent the problem’s re-emergence.

The method is applied in multiple fields such as telecommunications, IT operations, healthcare, among others. It is effectively used for accident analysis and process control. Gathering and monitoring data over a long period of time is critical for the success of a root cause analysis, and the lack of it might render the process ineffective.

What Is the Purpose of Root Cause Analysis?

Root cause analysis aims to uncover the root cause of problems, find the optimal way to repair faults, and find a solution that can be applied to prevent the recurrence of the event at fault. Thus, the method supports all efforts to locate the true causes of processes faults or impediments and fix them to continuously improve.

The RCA method is successfully used to identify root causes and contributing factors to a problem and create a prevention plan. In combination with other problem-analysis techniques such as barrier analysis, risk tree analysis, etc., root cause analysis is helpful for incident management, maintenance issues, productivity issues, risk analysis, etc.

What Are the Benefits of Root Cause Analysis?

The root cause analysis approach helps to describe a problem, identify and determine its primary cause(s). Reaching the heart of a problem and inspecting its aspects allows RCA to create an efficient, systematic problem-solving approach. Thanks to this preventive aspect, the problem-solving technique benefits organizations and processes by making them look deep into a problem and find permanent solutions. It also creates a prevention plan and identifies organizational improvement opportunities. Of course, RCA comes with advantages and disadvantages, so let’s look at the challenges of the method.

What Are the Challenges of Root Cause Analysis?

The root cause analysis method relies heavily on data to create a systematic approach to solving problems. Lack of important information can render the analysis of a process impediment incomplete and inefficient. On the other hand, gathering data over a long time can make identifying a problematic event extremely hard and time-consuming. That’s why it’s important to gather evidence and establish a timeline of events to help you distinguish between common and special causes of problems. Finding that a defect has not one but a few main causes is not uncommon. Establishing a causal graph showing multiple root causes can be a challenge to the root cause analysis method too.

What Are the Different Approaches to Performing a Root Cause Analysis?

RCA employs a variety of techniques depending on the field application. The most prominent approaches to root cause analysis are listed below.

  1. Causal Factor Analysis: Causal factor analysis refers to the process of establishing cause and effect. The technique requires the definition of correlation, sequence of events, a mechanism for observation of the effects of a possible cause, and eliminating the possibility of additional alternative causes. The method is successfully applied in the fields of statistics or experimental designs.
  2. Change Analysis: The change analysis technique is a problem-solving method that aims to identify changes or causal factors by comparing the normal state of an event/ problem and a state of the event deviating from it. Therefore, the method requires full specification of deviated and undeviated conditions of an event. The outputs can be easily implemented as recommendations. A drawback of the technique is that it requires testing and may not be conclusive.
  3. Barrier Analysis: Barrier analysis is a root cause analysis tool for identifying behavioral changes and the determinants forming a particular behavior. The technique benefits businesses by helping them develop more effective behavioral change strategies. The outputs of barrier analysis are findings that facilitate decision-making. It can be used in a wide range of different scenarios where a certain attitude needs to be promoted among a target audience.
  4. Risk Tree Analysis: Event or risk tree analysis is a modeling technique for analyzing a system’s positive and negative consequences, given that a triggering event is probable to occur. It employs an event tree modeling technique with a single event at its root and multiple event branches. The method is widely applied in a range of systems such as nuclear and chemical plants. RTA helps to identify potential defects early in the process before the actual issue has occurred. In this sense, the method is also an adequate risk assessment tool that prevents the occurrence of negative outcomes.
  5. Kepner-Tregoe Problem Solving: The Kepner-Tregoe is a problem-solving methodology used for decision-making. The focus of the technique is gathering, prioritizing, and evaluating information. It offers a step-by-step approach to analyzing risks, solving problems systematically, and making decisions. Due to its ability to break down a problem into its component parts such as who, when, and how, it can be applied to a wide range of fields. The technique allows us to distinguish between the features of a problem and narrow down its true root cause.

How Is Root Cause Analysis Used and by Which Industries?

Thanks to its wide range of tools, root cause analysis is applicable in multiple areas and industries, offering organizations problem-solving methods and supporting decision-making. Some of the fields where root cause analysis techniques are commonly used are healthcare, telecommunications, IT, and manufacturing.

1. Health and Safety

Root cause analysis is applied in healthcare to examine events to determine root causes of problems that led to undesired outcomes such as harm to patients or medication side effects. The analysis is utilized to improve patients’ safety, take corrective measures to prevent future occurrence of such events.

2. IT and Telecommunications

The application of root cause analysis techniques in IT and telecommunications helps to detect the root causes of newly-surfaced problematic services or deal with recurring problems. The analysis is widely used in processes such as incident management, security management, etc.

3. Manufacturing and Industrial Process Control

RCA is used in manufacturing processes to identify the root causes of engineering or maintenance failure. Root cause analysis methods allow the control of quality in the production of chemicals in the industrial process control discipline.

4. Systems Analysis

RCA has been successfully applied to change management or risk management areas thanks to its problem-solving abilities. RCA is also suitable for analyzing businesses, determining their goals, and creating processes to reach those goals, making it ideal for system analysis.

What Are the Tools of Root Cause Analysis?

Among the most prominent and widely used root cause analysis tools are the five whys method, Pareto charts, scatter diagram, fishbone diagram, and failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA).

Firstly, Pareto charts are used to indicate the frequency of distribution of defects and their cumulative effect. The famous 80-20 Pareto principle helps to inspect the potential root causes and failures. It can therefore be used to identify equipment faults or process impediments quite efficiently. The Pareto chart prioritizes the identified faults in order of severity and provides a more detailed explanation of the defects that need to be addressed first.

Secondly, the 5 Whys analysis is one of the ultimate problem-solving tools in the Lean toolset. It allows you to break down the aspects of a problem or an event to reveal its root causes. The technique implies answering as many “Why” questions as needed to arrive at the real cause. Originating from the manufacturing domain, the 5 Whys method is nowadays implemented into a wide range of fields where human, technical, or process issues occur.

Another tool used for root cause analysis is scatter diagram. The scatter diagram is a statistical approach that shows the relationship between two variables in a two-dimensional diagram. By plotting cause and effect in it, the scatter diagram is utilized to identify potential variation causes.

One of the other tools used in root cause analysis is fishbone diagram. The fishbone diagram, also known as Ishikawa method, is a fishbone-looking diagram that illustrates that multiple factors, responsible for a problem, failure, or event. The problem or event is shown where the fish’s head is, the cause is represented along the fish backbone. Further contributing factors are illustrated along the fish bones. The fishbone diagram method helps brainstorm an idea, a process bottleneck or find improvement opportunities by visualizing the process in a diagram.

The FMEA approach to root cause analysis has a preventive nature. The method aims to predict the future failures of a system by analyzing past performance data. The analysis requires input from various safety and quality control teams to calculate the risk priority number (RPN) of a system. To arrive at this number, the team needs to consider potential disruptions, past failure modes, and analysis of possible failure modes. The FMEA method facilitates the identification of a weak point in a system or a process.

What Are the Root Cause Analysis Steps?

There are six main steps to perform a root cause analysis.

  1. Identify the problem or event and describe it in a clear and comprehensive language.
  2. Create a timeline to visualize the normal state of a process until the event occurs.
  3. Distinguish between the root cause of a problem and additional causal factors.
  4. Create a causal graphic visualization between the root cause and the problem.
  5. Prioritize the identified root causes and establish which ones need to be addressed first.
  6. Find and implement the solution or solutions to the identified problem.

What Are the Resources about Root Cause Analysis?

Root cause analysis books, publications, and webcasts will help you understand the method's fundamentals, find the right tools and techniques to use in your case, and provide a perspective on how effective the technique can be. Some of the most notable resources on root cause analysis are listed below.

RCA Books:

  • The ASQ Pocket Guide To Root Cause Analysis, 2013, Bjørn Andersen, Tom Natland Fagerhaug
  • Root Cause Analysis: A Tool for Total Quality Management, 1992, Gaylord F. Anderson, Larry D. Dell, and Paul F. Wilson
  • Root Cause Analysis: A Step-By-Step Guide to Using the Right Tool at the Right Time, 2014, Matthew A. Barsalou

RCA Publications:

  • Patricia M. Williams (2001), Techniques for root cause analysis, Proceedings (Bayl Univ Med Cent), v. 14(2), 16369607, 10.1080/08998280.2001.11927753. The publication analyses the application of several root cause analysis tools concerning an employee safety event at the Pathology Department in a healthcare facility.
  • Mohammad Javad Ershadi, Rouzbeh Aiassi (2018), Root cause analysis in quality problem solving of research information systems, International Journal of Productivity and Quality Management 24(2):284, 10.1504/IJPQM.2018.091797. The publication analyses the application of RCA in research information systems (RIS) to solve quality problems and define appropriate correction measures.
  • Wendy Groot (2021), Root cause analysis – what do we know?, Maandblad voor Accountancy en Bedrijfseconomie 95(½):87:93, 10.5117/mab.95.60.778. The article explores how audit companies can benefit from the implementation of an adequate root cause analysis process.

RCA Case Studies:

  • Michelle Danyluk, Ph.D., 2019, Root Cause Analysis Case Study. In this case study, the effects of a root cause analysis are explored concerning an issue with fresh produce items.
  • Mark Galley, 2018, NYC helicopter crash - How to conduct a root cause analysis of an incident with multiple factors. The case study examines the root cause of an incident with a helicopter emergency landing. Applying several root case analysis techniques, the case study aims to perform an in-depth cause-and-effect analysis of multiple factors and produce prevention measures.
  • European Organisation For The Safety Of Air Navigation, 2004, Review Of Root Causes Of Accidents Due To Design, EEC Note No. 14/04. The case study examines the validity of a claim that a proportion of accidents (60%) in the aviation, railway, and nuclear fields, have their root causes in design.

RCA Webcasts:

  • Duke Okes, 2013, Get the Defects Out of Root Cause Analysis, YouTube. The webcast by ASQ can serve as an introduction to root cause analysis (RCA). The presentation covers terminology, types of root causes, clearly defining a problem, and gathering and analyzing data.
  • Tony Mittiga, 2017, Understanding Root Cause Analysis, YouТube. The webinar uncovers key root cause analysis methodologies used to solve complex organizational issues.
  • Michael Curran-Hays, 2017, Root-Cause Analysis Tools, and How to Use Them, YouTube. The webcast examines the variety of tools to uncover root causes of production issues, making a point of why finding the root cause and resolving it is crucial for production speed and quality.

Where Can You Get Root Cause Analysis Templates?

Root cause analysis templates are easily made using simple programs like Word or Excel. The example below is a root cause analysis template made in Excel.

root cause analysis

What Is the History of Root Cause Analysis?

Root cause analysis (RCA) originated in quality management engineering and emerged out of necessity to find the root causes of manufacturing problems and fix them permanently. Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota, established the first root cause analysis technique - the 5 Whys method as part of the Toyota Production System, developed between 1948 and 1975. Later on, W. Edwards Deming created his quality strategy based on the root cause analysis method.  In 1986 Motorola introduced root cause analysis and quality control practices under the title Six Sigma. In the last 30 years, the analysis technique has been successfully applied to industries outside the manufacturing domain: healthcare, education, etc.

Is Root Cause Analysis Used in Project Management?

Root cause analysis is used in project management to find solutions to recurring problems, prevent problems from occurring, and ensure that strategic goals are met. While the method was first applied in the engineering industry in the 1980s, RCA soon found application in multiple domains. As such, root cause analysis first breakthrough in the field of project management was made in 1986 with the development of quality standards designed for application in manufacturing companies. These standards are known as the Six Sigma approach. In recent years, root cause analysis has been also successfully implemented in modern PM approaches such as Agile project management.

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Step 1

How To Perform Root Cause Analysis?

Best practice to an effective root cause analysis requires performing the...

Step 2

Root Cause Analysis Tools

Root cause analysis is one of the most crucial problem-solving elements in...

Step 3

What Is a Pareto Chart?

Pareto Chart is a bar chart sorted by frequency, with the most important...

Step 4

What Is a Scatter Diagram?

Scatter diagram is a graphical representation of a set of data in which the...

Step 5

What Is a Fishbone Diagram?

Fishbone diagram is a causal diagram that visually represents the different...