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What is Root Cause Analysis? Process, Example & Everything You Need to Know

root cause analysis

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving methodology used to identify the underlying cause of a problem, incident, or adverse event. Simply put, it is pinpointing the root of the problem to solve and prevent it from happening again.

When faced with a problem, we usually try to get to the bottom of it. For example, in the unfortunate event that we break our bones, we would be in immense pain. We might take measures to control the pain and blood loss. But our efforts don’t stop at simply having a painkiller and applying a bandage. We rush to the ER as soon as possible, get the necessary treatment to mend the broken bones, and make sure we are careful not to have such an accident.

What we did here is we analyzed the problem: the pain and took steps to fix the root cause, which is the broken bones. Here the pain is the symptom, and the fractured bone is the root cause.

Now that we are familiar with what it stands for let us dive deep into root cause analysis, or RCA, which is the systematic approach employed in various industries like healthcare, manufacturing, governmental organizations, aviation, etc. We also examine its definition, history, benefits, approaches, process, principles, tips, and how to learn more.

Defining RCA Analysis

Root cause analysis is a problem-solving process that seeks to identify the underlying cause of a problem or issue. It’s a systematic approach that goes beyond just identifying symptoms and aims to uncover the root cause of the problem. The objective is to prevent future occurrences of the situation by addressing its root cause.

RCA analysis involves collecting and analyzing data to identify a problem’s underlying cause. The process typically consists of a team of experts who use various tools and techniques to gather and analyze data. Once the root cause has been identified, the team develops a plan to address the root cause and prevent future occurrences of the problem.

Also Read: What Is Process Capability and Why It’s More Interesting Than It Sounds

History of Root Cause Analysis

The origins of root cause analysis can be traced back to the late 19th century when it was used in the manufacturing industry to improve production processes. In the 20th century, it was further developed and applied to a broader range of industries, including healthcare and aviation.

In the 1950s when manufacturers started to use it to understand industrial events. The primary goal of RCA is to determine the fundamental cause of a problem, which is referred to as the “root cause.”

One of the earliest adopters of RCA was Toyota, who employed the “5 whys” method, where the investigation of a breakdown or undesired event is conducted by asking “why” at least five times. This approach forces quality personnel to delve deeper and understand the underlying causes, layer by layer. Today, RCA is widely used in various industries to identify and eliminate problems, improve processes, and prevent recurrence.

RCA was first used in the healthcare industry to address adverse events and improve patient safety. The Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) developed the RCA process in the late 1980s, and it quickly became a standard tool for improving patient safety and quality of care.

The Joint Commission, a US-based nonprofit that accredits healthcare organizations and programs, requires a root cause analysis (RCA) to be conducted whenever an accredited hospital experiences a specific type of adverse event. These are known as “sentinel” incidents, as they reveal a dangerous flaw in the care provided and prompt an immediate investigation and response.

RCA was developed in response to the growing number of plane crashes and incidents in the aviation industry. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was established in 1967. It has since been using RCA to investigate plane crashes and incidents to identify their root causes and prevent future occurrences.

Benefits of Root Cause Analysis

Before we go to explore how various industries and organizations benefit from implementing RCA, let us discuss the primary goals of root cause analysis.

The three main goals of RCA are:

  1. Identifying the root cause: The first goal is to discover the primary source of the problem or event. This is essential to understand the underlying causes and find practical solutions.
  2. Understanding the issues: The second goal of RCA is to fully comprehend the nature of the issues and develop a plan to fix, compensate, or learn from them. This requires a comprehensive analysis of the root cause and the factors contributing to it.
  3. Applying learnings: The third goal of RCA is to use the information gained from the analysis to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future. This includes making systemic changes to processes and systems and implementing measures to mitigate the risk of future adverse events.

Root cause analysis offers numerous benefits to organizations and industries. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Improving quality: RCA helps organizations identify the root cause of problems and implement solutions to prevent future occurrences, improving quality and efficiency.
  • Reducing risk: Organizations can reduce the risk of future incidents and adverse events by identifying the root cause of the problem and hence improving overall safety and security.
  • Enhancing customer satisfaction: Organizations can better manage their product issues by addressing the root cause of problems. Thus organizations can improve customer satisfaction and trust.
  • Improving organizational learning: RCA provides organizations with a systematic process for learning from problems and incidents, enabling them to improve their processes and procedures continuously.
  • Increasing efficiency and productivity: Organizations can improve their processes and procedures by addressing the root cause of problems, leading to increased efficiency and productivity.

Also Read: Demystifying the Theory of Constraints

Top Approaches of Root Cause Analysis

There are several approaches to root cause analysis, each with its unique methodology and tools. Let’s discuss some of the most commonly-used types of root cause analysis.

The 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis

The 5 Whys root cause analysis approach is beneficial for solving simple problems or identifying root causes in a short amount of time. This simple yet effective approach involves asking “why” questions to identify the root cause of a problem. The process is repeated until the root cause is identified. For example, in a service industry setting, in case of a complaint, by asking “why” five times, the team could drill down layer by layer to understand the underlying causes of the problem, such as poor communication, inadequate training, or poor service quality.

Fishbone Diagram

The Fishbone Diagram is a visual tool that helps teams identify potential root causes of a problem. It is called so because it resembles a fishbone. The fishbone diagram organizes and categorizes possible causes, making it easier to identify the root cause. For example, a fishbone diagram could be used in a manufacturing setting to categorize and analyze the various factors contributing to a machine breakdown, such as equipment design, operator error, or poor maintenance.

Pareto Analysis

The Pareto Analysis approach uses statistical analysis to identify the most significant root causes of a problem. The Pareto principle states that 80 percent of issues are caused by 20 percent of root causes. Pareto analysis helps teams focus on the most critical root causes, reducing the time and resources required to address the problem. For example, in a healthcare setting, a Pareto analysis could determine that 20 percent of patient falls are caused by 80 percent of the root causes, such as slippery floors, poor lighting, or lack of staff supervision.

Fault Tree Analysis (FTA)

This type of root cause analysis is a graphical representation of the relationships between different system components and how they contribute to a problem or failure. FTA helps teams understand the interdependencies between various components and identify the root cause of a problem. For example, in an aviation setting, an FTA could be used to analyze the interdependencies between different components of a plane, such as the engines, fuel system, and control surfaces, and to identify the root cause of a crash.

Conducting Root Cause Analysis: Process

We can break the process of conducting RCA into the following steps:

  1. Define the problem: The first step is clearly defining the problem and understanding what needs to be addressed.
  2. Gather data: Once the problem is defined, the next step is to gather data. This involves collecting information about the problem, including date, time, and location, as well as any relevant documentation, reports, or other information.
  3. Form a team: The next step is forming a team of experts responsible for conducting the RCA. The team should include individuals with expertise in the problem area, as well as representatives from different departments or parts of the organization.
  4. Use a root cause analysis tool: The team should use a root cause analysis tool, such as a fishbone diagram, Pareto analysis, or fault tree analysis, to help identify potential root causes.
  5. Identify root causes: Once potential root causes have been identified, the team should use the data and information collected to validate and verify the root causes.
  6. Develop solutions: Once the root cause has been identified, the team should develop solutions to address the root cause and prevent future occurrences of the problem.
  7. Implement solutions: The final step is to implement the solutions and monitor their effectiveness to ensure that the problem has been fully resolved.

Also Read: Value Stream Mapping in Six Sigma

Root Cause Analysis Principles

Conducting RCA involves following several fundamental principles:

  • Root cause focus: Root cause analysis focuses on discovering and correcting the root causes of a problem rather than just treating the symptoms.
  • Short-term relief: While focusing on root causes is essential, it’s also important to provide short-term relief for the symptoms.
  • Multiple root causes: Multiple root causes can contribute to a problem, so it’s important to identify all of them.
  • No blame: The focus should be on understanding how and why a problem occurred rather than who was responsible.
  • Evidence-based: Root cause claims should be supported by concrete cause-and-effect evidence.
  • Actionable information: The results of the analysis should provide enough information to inform a corrective course of action.
  • Future prevention: Consideration should be given to how the root cause can be prevented from recurring.

Tips for Root Cause Analysis

  • Start with a clear definition of the problem: It is essential to have a crystal-clear understanding of the problem before starting the RCA process. This will help ensure that the team is focused on addressing the right issue and that the root cause is accurately identified.
  • Gather all relevant data: Data is essential for a successful RCA. The team should gather as much relevant data as possible, including the date, time, and location of the problem, as well as all pertinent documentation, reports, or other information.
  • Involve experts from different areas: Involving experts from different areas of the organization, such as operations, maintenance, and engineering, will help ensure that the root cause is accurately identified and that all potential root causes are considered.
  • Use multiple tools and techniques: Different RCA tools and techniques, such as fishbone diagrams, Pareto analysis, and fault tree analysis, can provide different perspectives and insights into the root cause of a problem. The team should consider using multiple tools and techniques to ensure they completely understand the problem.
  • Be thorough and systematic: RCA should be approached systematically, using a structured process and methodology to identify root causes. The team should be detailed and methodical in their approach to ensure that all potential root causes are considered and that the root cause is accurately identified.
  • Focus on prevention: The goal of RCA is not just to identify the root cause of a problem but to prevent future occurrences. The team should focus on developing solutions that will prevent the problem from happening again in the future.

Also Read: Demystifying Kaizen Lean Six Sigma

Master Root Cause Analysis Skills to Become a Lean Six Sigma Expert

For a Lean Six Sigma expert, the ability to identify the underlying causes of problems and develop effective solutions for improving processes and outcomes is a prized skill. As such, you need to understand and know how to perform root cause analysis.

If you’re interested in becoming a Lean Six Sigma expert, an online Lean Six Sigma certification can provide you with the knowledge, skills, and tools you need to succeed in this role.

An online bootcamp like the one delivered by Simplilearn, in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, covers the core concepts of Lean Six Sigma, including problem-solving methodologies, process improvement techniques, and statistical analysis tools. This IASSC-accredited program teaches how to identify and eliminate waste, reduce defects, and improve process efficiency across various industries.

With business mentoring from industry experts from KPMG, you’ll be able to tackle real-world business problems confidently. This fast-track program is perfect for quality professionals, business analysts, and executives looking to carve successful careers.

Ready to start your journey toward becoming a master in quality management? Enroll today!

You might also like to read:

Ultimate Guide to Six Sigma Control Charts

DMADV: Everything You Need to Know

Describing a SIPOC Diagram: Everything You Should Know About It

Process Mapping in Six Sigma: Here’s All You Need to Know

How to Use the DMAIC Model?

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