What Is Root Cause Analysis? Definition, Tools and Benefits

Updated July 21, 2022

It's important to be able to function at maximum capability in the workplace. However, it's normal for problems to occur. Root cause analysis is a way to identify problems and what causes them so your team can develop solutions that prevent them from reoccurring. In this article, we discuss what a root cause analysis is, how it works, its benefits and some of its challenges.

Read more: Effective Problem Solving Steps in the Workplace

What is root cause analysis?

Root cause analysis (RCA) is the process of identifying the underlying cause of a problem so you can then approach it with solutions to prevent its reoccurrence. It encourages teams and leaders to step back from the traditional approach of fixing problems, and instead, work on finding a way to prevent them.

Although there may be one specific cause of a problem, RCA looks for and identifies if there are multiple causes—and solutions—by looking for patterns of effects that may have resulted in a negative outcome. RCA looks at specific events and then works backward from the problem to its ultimate beginning point. RCA can also identify what works well so you can apply similar patterns to other systems.

Read more: Methodologies for Decision Making (With Definitions and Examples)

How does RCA work?

Root cause analysis is a team approach methodology that works by understanding that systems and actions are related and that one action can trigger an event and that event can trigger another event and so on until you have a problem or multiple problems.

There are four main steps in an RCA:

1. Identify the problem

In this step, you define what the issue is and how it affects the organization or a particular system. Once you've identified the problem, you can try to determine when the problem first started.

2. Gather data

As you gather data, fully analyze your situation to understand more about the problem. Consider how long the problem has existed, how it was discovered and how it is affecting your operations. One way to gather data is by turning to those most familiar with the problem and the system it's affecting. Coworkers with more first-hand knowledge are likely to better understand how the system runs when it’s problem-free. Their input may be invaluable as you learn more about the issue and its possible solutions.

3. Analyze the problem

In this step, you want to determine why the problem occurred. You can create a causal graph to help you identify the root cause(s) of a problem along with any causal factors. Consider how these factors may be potentially making the problem worse.

There are three main groups of causes:

  • Concrete: A concrete cause is more physical, representing tangible items that didn't perform as they should. For example, a computer that experienced a hard drive crash.

  • Individual: An individual cause is a human error. It involves an individual or team who either did something wrong or failed to do what they should to prevent the problem. For example, a computer that experienced a hard drive crash because the owner clicked on a spam link in their email.

  • System: A system cause is organizational, meaning that there is a dysfunctional process in the workplace. For example, a computer that experienced a hard drive crash because the owner clicked on a spam link in their email, but there was not an anti-spam filter installed on everyone's computer.

This step may benefit from advanced tools, such as a Pareto analysis or fishbone diagram, that allow for a more robust analysis of all parts of a system or set of data. The more complicated the system, the more data you probably have and the more tools can assist you in your process. These tools are also great if you have certain limitations in the workplace, like not enough staff members or time to perform an RCA as you should.

4. Solve the problem

This step involves understanding what you can do to solve the problem and prevent its recurrence. During this step, you'll also want to discuss how you will implement the solutions as the logistics of changing a process could involve other stakeholders. You can then decide who is ultimately responsible for implementing the solution, identifying risks and ensuring the solution is viable. 

How to conduct an RCA

Several tools can be used for an RCA. Here are some of the most common:

5 whys analysis

The 5 whys approach involves identifying a problem and asking "why?" until you determine the main cause of the issue. Because of the narrow nature of the system, it is best used for simple or less complicated problems that are likely to have a small number of possible causes.

Read more: The 5 Whys Analysis: What It Is and How To Use It (With Examples)

Event or change analysis

Another useful method of exploring root cause analysis is to carefully analyze changes that may have led up to an event. This method is especially helpful when there are a large number of potential causes. 

In an event analysis, instead of looking at the specific day or hour that something went wrong, team members look at a longer period and gain a historical context. Once a timeline has been established, the causal and contributing factors can be identified.

A change analysis explores changes made in people, equipment, information and more that may have contributed to the change in performance. 

Related: 12 Approaches To Problem-Solving for Every Situation

Cause and effect fishbone diagram

Another common technique is creating a fishbone diagram, also called an Ishikawa diagram, to visually map cause and effect. It is an easy-to-understand cause and effect diagram that helps determine the reasons for failures, defects, variations and imperfections. The diagram encourages brainstorming by following branched paths, resembling a fish skeleton, to potential causes and visually showing how the solution would alter the scenario.

Related: 25 Brainstorming Techniques for Team Inspiration

Pareto analysis

Pareto analysis is a technique that can help you select the best solution for a problem when there are many potential solutions to try but limited resources available to pursue them all. Pareto analysis derives from the 80/20 rule, which states that 80% of an event's outcomes are the product of 20% of the contributions.

Related: The 80/20 Rule Explained and How To Use It (Plus Examples)

How to improve RCA

Root cause analysis is an important part of an organization or system's success. Here are ways to improve your RCA process:

  • Document and store data. The most effective way to find the root cause of something is by having documentation and data in place that you can analyze once a problem occurs. The more data you have, the easier and more likely it'll be that you can find the root cause.

  • Invest in a software tool. A tool may not be necessary, but it can likely help your analysis process so you're able to find root causes. Without one, you may rely on individuals, who are prone to human error, to filter through all the data or history of a problem with the hopes of finding the cause. A tool can also help you prepare for future problems and probably save you a lot of time and money.

  • Evaluate your choices. Consider spending time every three to six months reviewing the major decisions that took place over the past period. Decide if your decisions worked out well or fell short and why. By doing this, you can identify patterns and understand more about what documentation you need for a proper review process. Also, a formal review process will educate the team about cause and effect and how their decisions can have a large and lasting impact.

Read more: Q&A: What Is a Fish Bone Diagram?

Benefits of an RCA

Here are the additional benefits of performing an RCA:

  • You can react fast. RCA allows you to step in quickly to fix a problem and keep the problem from causing widespread damage. Your decision-making process should be better and faster, too.

  • You can prevent problems. Once you perform an RCA and take the steps to keep problems from reoccurring, you may then develop a mindset that looks for issues. You may be able to put a stop to anything that can lead to a real problem.

  • Communication improves. RCA details why a problem happened, and you'll be able to explain the steps involved in the issue. The more details you have, the more adept you'll be at communicating why the problem happened and working with your team to develop informed solutions.

Challenges of an RCA

Even though there are major benefits of an RCA, there are also some challenges to be aware of, including:

  • Developing a causal graph can take a significant amount of time and effort as can gathering the data you need to get started.

  • There is frequently more than one root cause to a problem which can make the causal graph difficult to write out.

  • It's possible to miss important data, especially if there is a lot of it. It may also be difficult and expensive to store all the data you need to pull necessary information when there is a problem.

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