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What are the steps to complete a root cause analysis? Guide for beginners.

Root cause analysis is a structured process designed to find what, how, and why an event occurred.  Only when you know the answer to these questions, you will be able to determine the corrective measures to prevent a recurrence. 

A root cause is an underlying cause that management has control to fix, and recurrence prevention is possible by the application of effective recommendations.  RCA drills deeper than symptoms to find the underlying action and conditions that led to the undesired situation.  The goal of RCA is to identify one or two reasons that, if corrected, will reduce recurrence.  RCA has four general steps.

Understand the problem

Understanding why an event occurred is critical for effective corrective actions.  Just as with PDCA, problem definition is the most important part of the RCA process.  Use a team approach whenever it is possible.  It depends on the nature of the problem, but multiple heads are better than one.  Get the background of the current situation and state the problem in clear, concise terms. 

Common errors in describing problems are stating a solution in the problem statement, blaming others, and vague problem statements.

Collect data

When you understand the problem, it is easier to identify what type of data you need to find the root cause.  Gathering data is a vital part of the analysis, and it consumes quite some time.  Go where the action or process happens, where the value is created and observe.  Talk with the people who work there and ask questions to understand the situation.  Be respectful, listen to carefully, and take notes.  Make sure that you do not judge or criticize.  The purpose of your visit is to understand the current process and get information to determine what kind of data is needed.  

Using a team approach, decide what data you will collect, when, how, who will do it, and by when.  Some examples are inspection records, maintenance logs, work instructions, customer complaints, time studies, and process flow charts.

Find the root cause

Now you have all the details and, there are no guessing or loose ends.  Analyze the information,  look for clues that would explain the incident.  Try to find trends or common circumstances every time the problem occurs.  Tools like the fishbone, 5 Why, Mind Map, and Pareto Analysis facilitate this process. 

Plan creation and execution

You are looking for one or two causes that, corrected, will prevent the problem from occurring.  If you have more, it means that you need to keep digging to find the underlying cause.

Once you have it, generate ideas or solutions for the problem.  Ask what preventive actions will stop the event from happening.  Evaluate and prioritize those ideas.  The recommendation should directly address the root causes identified.  Use PDCA to guide you through the plan and execution process.

The four steps presented above are the general steps to complete a root cause analysis.  Each of them has more details and how-to information.  Follow the blog to keep learning about problem-solving, RCA, and how to use for continuous improvement.

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What is Root Cause Analysis?

Root Cause Analysis

Many times, when a problem happens, actions are taken to fix it without knowing what the problem is. To avoid that, PDCA gives a structure for the problem-solving process.

Understanding the problem is critical for the success of PDCA, and knowing the root cause is an important piece. Without identifying the underlying cause, it is impossible to implement corrective actions that prevent a recurrence. If all we need to stop a problem from repeating itself is find the root cause, why we keep fighting with the same situations?

Root cause analysis (RCA) is one of those things that is easier said than done. While it is not complicated, finding the root cause requires patience, attention to detail, and the ability to look at things from different perspectives. RCA is a structured process for identifying the most basic causal factor(s) that if corrected or removed will prevent recurrence of an undesired outcome.

It is common to engage in finding a solution when the situation is almost out of control. At this point, patience is out of the picture you want to see fast results. RCA requires persistence to keep asking why that happens until finding the end cause. If you stop digging before finding the most basic cause, the process fails. You end up working with the physical cause, which is a symptom or a proximate cause.

A proximate or physical cause is the source of the symptoms that you see as the problem. Recommendations to fix this type of cause are corrective actions, but they do not prevent a recurrence.

To have different points of view of the situation, brainstorm ideas with the affected members of the team. Create a blame-free, safe environment where people can talk honestly. Encourage thinking out of the box, and asking why to find buried reasons.
Root causes are specific basic causes that management has control to fix and develop effective recommendations to avoid recurrence. For example, human error is not specific. Why the person errs? There is another uncover reason like, Is the work instruction clear? Is it complete? Is there any distraction that affects performance? An example of something you cannot control is the weather. Because you cannot control the weather, it is necessary to keep digging what reason is hiding behind weather conditions.

The goal of RCA is to identify one or two reasons, that, if corrected will reduce recurrence. Tools like fishbone or the 5 Why facilitate this process. The rule of thumb is that if there are three or more root causes, you can assume the root cause has not yet been found, and you need additional investigation. In summary, keep digging!