A root cause refers to something in your business that is hindering your success. It’s referred to as a root cause because it’s been identified as the underlying reason for the problem at hand. Once the problem occurs, a root cause can usually be readily identified, and easily handled by the management. When management repairs this underlying problem, or root cause successfully, there is very little chance of it returning, as all extenuating circumstances have been eliminated or reduced. Root causes can include:
- Human/machine error
- Failure of materials/manufacturing issue
- Errors in procedure
- Failure in logistics
To ensure that this recurring underlying nightmare of cause and effect is eliminated, management employs Root Cause Analysis, or RCA to fix the problem. Once management has identified the root cause, it’s then time to choose an RCA technique to get rid of it. If you’re new to RCA, you should know right now that there are different methods available to alleviate your situation. Some of these tools are designed to problem-solve, some to identify issues, and some are designed to support the process.
A root cause analyses are designed to improve the quality of your products and/or services, to ensure you regain a solid workflow and must be performed in a step-by-step fashion. This structure makes certain that you never get ahead of yourself. Following the proper hierarchy for each technique is extremely important. You and your team must stay on each step, until you’ve thoroughly exhausted its possibilities, before advancing to the next. So, while there are different techniques in locating the primary problem, the basic hierarchy remains the same:
- What’s the problem?
- Assemble as much data and input as possible
- Locate the causes
- Find solutions
- Create actionable strategies for the changes you seek
- Give yourself time to see if the changes take hold
If you are new to performing a root cause analysis, it can’t hurt to grab a notepad, jot down the above steps, and simply try to work things out on paper first, just to give you an idea of what you are looking for. This can help you in selecting the proper methodology to conduct your real root cause analysis when the time comes.
Keep your Eyes on the End Result
The end result is to reduce or eliminate the source of the primary problem, or root cause. This means that your RCA must remain a dynamic process vs a static one. In other words, don’t get so tied up in the problem, that you accidentally bypass factors that caused the problem. Sound confusing? It does not need to be. Just keep your mindset on your goal, which is to fix the problem at hand, and the possibility that additional factors which were previously unseen, may pop up.
These will have to be dealt with as well, so be vigilant. You may start off with one primary problem, and initially 2 contributing factors. As the root cause analysis goes on, you may end up with 10 contributing factors. Keep in mind that if you miss just one factor, you risk the issues caused by the primary problem to be reduced, continue, but not eliminated.
Become Familiar with the Pros and Cons of the Methodology You Select
When you select one methodology over another, it’s due to the benefits they offer. While that is all well and good, you must also keep in mind any shortcomings. For instance, the “5 Whys” is one of the more popular methodologies. Here, you are asking 5 basic questions to discover the underlying issue. While it is popular, easy to use and understand, it might not explore all possible causes for a problem. Plus, most primary problems in business may require more than 5 questions. So, if you have a complex issue to deal with, this might not be the methodology for you. Instead, look into the Fishbone diagram or select Cause Mapping. These are direct cause and effect methodologies where sub-causes can be further broken down into secondary causes, tertiary causes, etc.
Assemble a Good Team
When conducting a successful root cause analysis, the more heads you have, the better. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm ideas, don’t be afraid to be creative. As stated, you can easily print off some root cause analysis templates to pass around, to help people make notes during the brainstorming process. While it is true that performing an RCA can be an individual undertaking, creating a team means more input, viewpoints, and solutions to consider. All of which can lead to the best outcome possible, which is what you want.
What is the Best Solution?
Once you and your team have identified the factors which are causing the primary problem, it’s time to look for a solution. However, during the brainstorming process, you may end up with multiple, viable solutions, so how do you know which is the best one? Simple. The best solution is the one that is easiest to implement, is the most cost-effective, and most importantly, will not lead to any more issues.
Root Cause Analysis Templates
Another method to help you get your bearings straight is to use a root cause analysis template, even if just for practice. These templates are quick and easy to use. Simply select the one that best suits your needs and download it. Next, open it using either Microsoft Word or Excel. Proceed to enter your personal data. Templates are also great to pass along to your team, as worksheets when you get together to brainstorm ideas for your final, actionable strategies.
Root Cause Analysis Processes & Methods
The more familiar you become with root cause analyses, the more techniques you’ll uncover. This might be a bit confusing for those new to conducting an RCA, but it need not be so. As long as you follow a few basic hints and tips concerning processes and methods, you’ll be well on your way to conducting a successful root cause analysis.
As stated, gathering the most data from informed team members can result in the best possible result. Therefore, assemble the best team, and make certain that the individual(s) who will be handling the actual elimination of the primary problem, will be present and have the final say in how the problem will be resolved.
To help you get started, we’ve provided a basic outline below:
- When selecting team members, make certain that you choose those who are from the departments affected by the problem. Also, assign one member of the team to delegate duties.
- Feel free to gather data from customers, branch managers, or even hire an RCA consultant to lead the team, if there are no members familiar with the RCA process
- Keep up to date with milestones and within time-frames. Generally, most RCA’s take around 2 months to complete. This includes gathering data, brainstorming sessions and collating data into possible actionable strategies. Make sure deadlines are met if any, and meetings are regularly scheduled at a time when everyone on the team can meet.
- Patience and keen observation are key here. Depending on the scope of the issue, it may take as little as a day, or as long as several months before a positive change is detected.
The Cause Mapping Method for Root Cause Analysis
Many management teams choose the Cause Mapping Method of conducting a root cause analysis. Cause Mapping is a simple and efficient 3-step method which employs the use of an easy to read a visual map. Like the Fishbone method, this also works to establish a cause and effect relationship between variables in order to find the primary problem. The basic hierarchy of the Cause Mapping method involves:
- A concise definition of the primary problem, and how it affects the goals of the organization
- Locate, list and analyze the causes
- Create solutions in the form of actionable strategies to implement
Step 1. Identifying the Primary Problem
Once your team is assembled, it’s time to identify the problem. In order to do this within the context of the Cause Mapping scenario, ask the following questions:
- What are our business goals, and will it all affects our business goals?
Be aware that “Who” is not included in the above. This has to do with the possible loss of valuable input. After all, once you start naming names, or asking for names people have a tendency to clam up, and that’s not what you want.
Step 2. Analyze “Why Did Something Happen?”
Next, it’s time to uncover the reason for the primary problem. This is where the visual map comes into play. First, take your primary problem, and place it into a box on the left side of the diagram. Next, you’ll use a directional arrow to link to the cause of the primary problem. It’s just that simple. Now, continue creating your boxes whenever you find that a cause you listed, has been created by another cause. As you can see, one primary problem can end up having multiple causes.
When you read your map, you will be starting on the left, and reading toward the right. If it helps you, feel free to write the words, “was caused by” above each directional arrow. If you think that your Cause Mapping is similar to a Tree Diagram or Fishbone, you are correct. The only real difference is that cause maps are designed to be easy to read, in a left to right fashion. Again, feel free to use Mindmapping tools, such as Freemind for this as well.
Step 3. Solutions
It’s now time to look at your Cause Map and find solutions that will work. These are also known as actionable strategies, as they will create a functioning solution that will solve your initial problem. To do find the best possible solution, it’s helpful to divide the solution up into 3 parts:
- Have your team state their solutions
- Study each solution to find the best fit
- Implement the solution: Make it work
When all is said and done, your perfect solution will be one that works and is the least expensive to implement. While it may seem simple, Cause Mapping is an invaluable tool when it comes to performing your RCA. This tool offers them an easy and efficient way to get to the root of the problem by offering a simple, visual method to find what they need. This is especially true in business situations, where getting to the root cause can be an extremely detailed and confusing process.
Root Cause Analysis Approaches and Techniques
As stated, there are a variety of RCA techniques available to you. So, it’s important to take a look at some of these different methodologies so you can select the best one for your needs. The method you select has to establish a causal relationship. This means that the solution will have an effect on the root cause by either reducing or eliminating it.
Also known as the Ishikawa diagram, this RCA technique is used to establish cause and effect relationships between variables. For this method, you might find that a mind mapping tool, such as Freemind can work well to help you get started. Basically, you place one node in the center, this is the ‘Effect’. You then branch the causes out from there. What’s useful about this method, is that you can get very detailed, as each cause can then be broken down into a sub-cause, which can be further broken down into secondary and tertiary causes, and so on.
Mindmapping tools such as Freemind also work well with the Tree Diagram method. The Tree Method is one of the old stand by methodologies used when conducting a basic RCA. Simply put, it gives you a neat, concise, visual diagram of your issues. First, you start by placing the problem at the top of the page. Next, you create two main branches. These are for the causes. You continue this process until you identify the root cause of the problem.
The 5 Whys
This popular root analysis question functions by asking questions. Once you have your primary problem identified, you simply ask 5 questions, or “Why” five times. This is designed to take lead you to the root cause. So, what are 5 whys for root cause analysis? Well, 5 whys consist of (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology.
5 Whys Root Cause Analysis Template
This easy to use tool is often chosen for its efficiency and accessibility. Basically, you are taking your problem and creating a procedural chart using symbols. Each symbol has its own meaning, such as a statement box or a decision box. Each of these ‘boxes’ are then connected with directional arrows.
Also known as the 80/20 rule, the Pareto Analysis states that 20 percent of causes contribute to 80 percent of your issues. A spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft’s Excel is great for this. Here, you’ll list your causes across the bottom, as a bar graph, with the more urgent causes on the left, to the least urgent causes toward the right. Then, the percentages are tracked via a line graph.
Example: Agile Zen, Software Development and the 5 Why’s Method
For those of you involved in software development companies who embark on a root cause analysis, you’ll find that the 5 Why method can work quite well. The 5 Why technique was created by Sakichi Toyoda to be utilized within the Toyota corporation to assist in streamlining manufacturing processes and later adapted by many software developers who adapted the lean movement of management. In Agile, tasks have estimated time frames. To see how it works, observe the following steps:
- Debug your code – estimated time frame: 2 minutes
- Make a list composed of each bug found – estimated time frame: 3 minutes
- For each bug, as to why it occurred – estimated time frame: 20 to 30 minutes
- Find root causes – estimated time frame: 10 minutes
- Conduct a brainstorming session to find a solution(s) – estimated time frame 10 to 20 minutes
As you can see, performing a root cause analysis in a software or gaming development company using SCRUM techniques involves a slightly different approach. Each task is laid out and given its own specified time frame that you cannot extend.
When all is said and done, performing a Root Cause Analysis can add efficiency as well as increased profit to your business. With the root cause identified and actionable strategies implemented, there is little chance that the problem will recur. Take advantage of the great variety of methodologies available to you. Learn their pros and cons, and select the one that you feel will give you the best result in exchange for your efforts, at least cost and highest probability of success.
RCA can seem like an intimidating term. Mostly used in professional settings, in reality, most people perform a root cause analysis while making everyday decisions. At the simplest of levels, root cause analysis means looking into the underlying reason for a problem or issue. For example, an employee being late to work may have a root cause of his child’s being too far from the office.
Once one is able to identify the real reason behind the problem, it becomes easier to address it and fix it, rather than treating the symptoms.
Business owners benefit from performing such a process by using a root cause analysis template. This template helps look at the underlying causes behind lags in production or customer complaints and summarizes in an understandable way where efforts to fix it should lie. More often than not, the root cause analysis is done after a problem has been identified and is not used as a forecasting tool. However, it is always a good idea to anticipate problems that might affect production or other business outcomes.
The most valuable result of using a root cause analysis template is that it is already designed to break down complex processes into simpler ones, so the reviewer can easily assess where the fault lies. It is not a tool to assign blame, but rather to identify where the process has broken down and help identify possible solutions. Many successful businesses utilize this tool routinely as a checkpoint and are able to catch issues at an earlier stage. Another important application for this type of exercise is in identifying unsafe working conditions. Analyzing the root cause of injuries in the workplace has an important role in senior management and allows for immediate remediation of threats. Examples of root cause analysis templates are included here as a guide.