Using Root Cause Analysis
By Mike Raia Posted May 31, 2022
Getting to the Root Cause
Nobody likes to be sick, even a mild illness can ruin our week, and a more serious one can turn our life upside down. As a patient, you should never accept medication or an answer from your physician that only treats the symptoms of your illness. If the goal is to truly get healthy, you'd prefer the doctor to dig deep, perform the necessary tests, and deductive reasoning based on the signs displayed by your body to find out the root cause of your illness, and treat it.
The same logic can be applied to processes in any system, whether it's onboarding a new employee, a product development process, or a customer engagement, there are invariably things that go wrong and a means to identify what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
So, how can you understand and identify the underlying issues in your processes? And how can you proceed with solving them? In this article, we will explain what Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is, what are its steps, and how to conduct it efficiently and effectively.
What is Root Cause Analysis (RCA)?
Before we break down the process in 5 actionable steps, it is essential to define and establish the importance of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and what Root Cause is.
A root cause is a factor that caused an error that should be permanently eliminated through process improvement. The root cause is the core issue and will set the motion for the entire cause-and-effect reaction. You can see how if the RC is not addressed, it'll ultimately lead to problems.
Root cause analysis seeks to define and tackle the underlying causes, so it will often not only identify one leading cause of a problem, but likely a set of issues, beginning with determining what happened, proceeding with the cause, and finally, proposing a remedy. It is a process of assessing a given situation in depth.
Now we'll cover the steps of an RCA process. Follow this process each time you perform an RCA. In some cases, a step may move quickly; in others, one step might take up a much more significant percentage of the process than the others.
Also, note it's better to go through the process with a group rather than a single analyst. The different perspectives and brainstorming dynamics will be much more effective with multiple voices.
Define the problem
What was the unexpected, unwanted result, and what was the impact? Is this a repeating issue or a one-time problem?
Identify potential causes
Collect and analyze the available data. Review potential causes.
Causes are usually organizational, human, or physical.
These tend to be policy issues. Someone did something based on the correct rules, but which caused a problem.
Someone made a mental mistake or failed to act appropriately.
Servers and software can fail. Planes can get delayed. Packages can end up at the wrong address.
At this point the goal is to simply lay out all the possible causes and sub-causes without deciding the root cause. Thin of it as a brainstorming session.
Identify the root cause
Originating in the 1970s at Toyota, the 5 Whys method is a simple way of getting to the root of any problem. The idea is to identify a problem and then ask "Why?" five times.
Why was the entry made late?
Because we didn't have the correct information in time.
Because purchasing was late delivering it.
Because they were waiting on a pricing discount approval.
The discount approval process is slow.
Because it's manually done through email.
Define solutions, implement
Once you identify the root cause(s) it's time to brainstorm again, except this time for a solution.
Obviously, the goal was to eliminate the recurrence of a problem, so it makes sense to set up a system to track performance and confirm the problem doesn't show up again.
You may also track the other causes that contributed to the ultimate problem. For instance, in the 5 Why's example, you might track the on-time rate for entries being entered as well as the on-time rates for purchasing and sales. These could be leading indicators that another problem is imminent.
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