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:

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:

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.

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:

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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