What is root cause analysis (RCA)?
The pursuit of efficiency is a constant goal for business leaders. Recurring problems and inefficient processes waste resources, restrict ROI, and chip away at morale. But resolving those ingrained issues and improving those established systems can be tricky. Many managers try to jump right to easing the symptoms of a problem, but lasting change starts at the beginning.
Root cause analysis (RCA) is the key to effective change because it’s an actionable structure for thinking about the problem.
In this piece, you will learn:
What is root cause analysis?
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a systematic approach to identifying the core of a problem or inefficiency so you can identify the best way to solve it. It’s based on the idea that you can prevent recurring problems and improve existing processes when you identify and treat underlying causes instead of focusing on surface-level symptoms.
RCA is often used to solve problems and outline necessary preventive measures for situations like major and minor accidents, maintenance and manufacturing problems, medical mistakes, environmental releases, productivity issues, or everyday incidents caused by human error.
How to do root cause analysis
There are several approaches to root cause analysis, but they all follow the same general structure.
1. Define the problem or goal
The first step in RCA is defining the problem that needs to be solved or the improvement that needs to be made. A full and detailed understanding of the issue is crucial.
Take time to fully understand the problem or improvement goal. Collect relevant data and document your analysis. Consider the following:
- How the problem impacts the company as a whole
- How often the problem occurs or how often the inefficiency is felt
- How the current problem or process is being measured
For example, an operations manager might notice that new product releases are frequently late. As that manager pulls together data and insights, they will be able to confidently report exactly how often product releases are behind schedule, providing a concrete description of the problem. They will also be able to discuss the issue as it relates to the business as a whole. Releases that are consistently late degrade customer experience and customer trust, increasing churn and impacting revenue negatively.
2. Brainstorm possible root causes
After identifying the problem, list all the possible issues or events that may have contributed to it. If you’re trying to improve a process for greater efficiency, detail every part of the current workflow. Don’t worry about validating root causes at first — brainstorm the longest list you can come up with.
Then, analyze the actual impact of each possible cause. You may need to do some additional research to rule out anything that looks like a cause but actually isn’t. Finally, prioritize the causes you have left. Identify which are having the greatest impact and which are minor.
Let’s revisit the operations manager dealing with late product releases. They may start with the team’s Kanban board or other product development process and brainstorm possible root causes at every stage. The ops manager might list possibilities like:
- Ideas stay in “to do” too long or don’t start on time.
- Work doesn’t get assigned to team members quickly.
- Approvals take too long.
- User feedback takes too long.
- User feedback gets lost.
With a complete list of possible root causes, the operations manager would then analyze each one. For example, they may have to ask team members or review digital Kanban card data to determine how long it takes the team to get user feedback and how that feedback gets shared internally.
3. Devise solutions
Once you’ve identified and detailed the root cause of a problem — or the root cause that’s keeping a system or process underperforming — brainstorm possible solutions. Interviewing personnel from the relevant department is a great way to gather input and recommendations from people who are immersed in the work.
In the example of the operations manager, let’s assume that user feedback is a major cause of delay. The manager would sit down with their team to discuss possible solutions. They would probably talk about the channels they’re currently using to gather feedback, the strategies in place to collect feedback, how it is shared with the team, and more. Possible solutions might include developing a more intentional process for soliciting feedback and assigning a point person to manage comments and ideas as they come in.
4. Implement solutions
Once you’ve designed and validated solutions, implement them strategically to make sure new processes and fixes don’t fall through the cracks. You may need to get buy-in from the team members who are close to the problem or support from executive leadership. If you’re working with a team, assign a point person or project manager to ensure implementation doesn’t slip through the cracks.
The operations manager in our example may assign one team member to start developing a better process for requesting feedback and another team member to oversee incoming reviews. The manager would need to set up recurring check-ins with those team members to make sure implementation is done well.
5. Monitor results
Depending on the solution implemented, your monitoring period may last weeks or months. Make adjustments if your proposed solutions aren’t working. If you’ve repeatedly made adjustments and the solutions haven’t worked, brainstorm and implement solutions to the other primary causes you’ve identified.
Returning to our example one last time, the operations manager would probably monitor the new user feedback process for at least a few product release cycles. First, they would make sure that the new process for requesting feedback is effective by validating that the team gets more feedback or at least gets it faster than before. The manager would also make sure that the feedback that does come in gets shared with the team quicker than it did in the past. Finally, the operations manager will review product release timelines to see if the improvements in the customer feedback loop improved release times overall.
If the operations manager notices that feedback has not gotten quicker or that it hasn’t helped the team make product release deadlines, the manager can simply go back to the list of possible root causes from step two and start to develop solutions for another possible cause. If faster feedback loops result in more timely product releases, they may still decide to select another possible cause and improve the process even more.
RCA methods and approaches
Root cause analysis identifies contributing factors to a problem or event. Just as the overall RCA process is flexible, different methods and approaches to root cause analysis are common as well.
- Change analysis — Also known as change impact analysis, this RCA approach compares a deviation to the norm in order to identify the root cause of the deviation. It explores changes made in people, equipment, infrastructure, information, and other contributing factors that could have affected system performance.
- Causal factor analysis — An RCA technique also known as causal factor tree analysis, this approach involves recording and visually displaying all of the actions and conditions (or causal factors) that led to a particular problem event.
- Event analysis — Sometimes lumped together with causal factor analysis, this RCA method involves quick evidence gathering to establish a timeline for actions and conditions leading up to a problem event. From there, teams can determine causal and contributing factors. Event analysis is often used for major, one-off problems like explosions.
- Barrier analysis — Often used in safety incidents, barrier analysis is an RCA approach based on the premise that problems could have been detected and prevented if the proper barriers had been in place. Barrier analysis looks at the different effects caused by specific hazards and investigates how barriers (or controls) failed to prevent the accident.
- ”5 Whys” analysis — Popularized in the 1970s by Toyota, the 5 Whys analysis is an RCA technique that helps users get to the root of the problem quickly by asking the questions “Why?” and “What caused the problem?” up to five times.
- Ishikawa (Fishbone) diagram — Also known as the cause-and-effect diagram, the Ishikawa diagram is an RCA analysis tool that looks at an event’s causes contributing to a problem. It's designed like a fish skeleton, earning its nickname as the “fishbone diagram” because it groups a long list of causes into related sub-categories. This structure helps identify which root causes are most likely to be the main problems.
- Kepner-Tregoe's root cause analysis — Also known as the KT method, this RCA model involves disconnecting problems from decisions through four phases of problem-solving — situation analysis, problem analysis, solution analysis, and potential problem analysis.
- Pareto analysis — Named after the Pareto Principle — or the observation that 80% of problems come from 20% of causes — the Pareto analysis process selects a solution that provides the most significant benefit.
Some of these methods and techniques are also known as “tree” diagrams or analysis because they identify the root causes of a factor and list the possible corrective action. For example, change analysis is also referred to as “change tree analysis” because you can also use a tree diagram to illustrate the causes and effects of a change.
Root cause analysis resources
If you want to learn more about root cause analysis, here are some resources you can check out:
- The 5 Whys. A comprehensive resource on the 5 Whys analysis.
- A complete guide to data analysis and how to keep your business competitive in 2022. An essential read if you want to learn how to use the data collected to keep your business competitive.
- Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action. If you need a resource that focuses more on the process of solving problems than finding its causes, this is the book for you.
Getting started with root cause analysis
RCA prevents recurring problems from occurring by helping businesses determine an issue’s underlying cause. RCA can also be used to make improvements to long-standing processes.
Root cause analysis is simple, but that doesn’t always mean it’s easy. Analyzing a big problem or improving an embedded process takes a lot of data and analysis, so you need the best tools available. Adobe Workfront is work management software that connects work to strategy and drives better collaboration to deliver measurable business outcomes.
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