A root cause analysis is a structured method for finding the underlying causes of process problems and undesirable outcomes. Root cause analysis is a core problem-solving technique used by organizations dedicated to continuous improvement. As the name implies, it is all about addressing the origin of the issue rather than employing solutions that address only surface problems.
What is a root cause analysis?
Fundamentally, a root cause analysis involves answering three broad questions using several structured methods:
- What is the problem?
- Why did it occur?
- How can it be prevented in the future?
In a continuous improvement culture, a root cause analysis is a standard intervention in any process, especially those where avoiding delays is essential.
Who conducts the root cause analysis?
A root cause analysis requires the right team and no people needlessly involved.
Typically, a root cause analysis team will include:
- A facilitator to set a plan and guide the participants through the analysis
- Team members involved in operating the process, more specifically those close to the incident
- The process owner for knowledge of the historical process
- One or more subject matter experts to interpret and implement solutions
When should you perform a root cause analysis?
The simplest way of thinking about it is that you should perform a root cause analysis whenever a problem repeatedly shows itself within a process. When that problem is causing unintended process results or is hindering flow.
Four typical situations where a root cause analysis may be needed are:
- Safety concerns such as accidents or risk
- Quality control of production systems
- Sub-optimal business processes results
- Engineering failures
How is a root cause analysis performed?
To start, whatever method you use, the following steps are essential:
- Document each incident with a factually correct account
- Craft a statement of the problem to be addressed
- Identify and collect data and statements that verify the account
- Develop a timeline of the incident/occurrence
- Brainstorm potential causes and remedies
- Apply countermeasure actions
- If the implemented solution does not work, start again until the solution is effective
Here are some root cause analysis techniques you can employ:
1. The 5 Whys
The go-to method in the continuous improvement world is the 5 Whys analysis. It is merely a series of 'why' questions to get to the root cause. Here's an example:
Problem statement: The customer support call center wait time was too high.
Why? Staff members could not keep up with call volume.
Why? There was inadequate staff for the number of calls.
Why? The schedule did not account for increased pre-holiday calls.
Why? The system did not use last year's call volume to predict this situation.
Why? It was not programmed to do so.
By asking a repeated series of "why" questions, you can get to the core issue at hand, in this case, a poorly configured staffing system.
The system can be set up to analyze call volume to adjust staffing based on predictable events in the future.
While it is simple, the 5 Whys technique does require discipline and training. The team must know when to stop and take corrective action, in this case, fixing the programming error, rather than asking an infinite number of whys.
2. Fishbone / Ishikawa Analysis
For more complex problems, the fishbone analysis is a visual tool to map out the categories of potential causes. It then breaks each down into smaller categories which may be the root cause.
The categories are commonly, but not always:
- Physical work
It starts with a problem question such as "Why is our e-commerce cart abandon rate high?".
This forms the head of the "fish." The rest of the body flows from this question. The remainder of the fishbone includes several lines (the bones), representing various categories of questions to ask. For example, under the technology line, you may question what your website does to engage those customers who don't complete the purchase. Can you use re-marketing ads and follow-up emails to reduce this abandonment rate? You could ask whether the customer journey is streamlined with minimal clicks required to order under the process category. You begin to form ideas around the causes and possible solutions for this root cause.
3. Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA)
FMEA is a technique to identify where and how failures might occur and the consequences of failure.
Ideally, this is performed before the process goes live.
The steps are:
- Document the process by creating a flowchart of each step
- Suggest potential failures by looking at data and make a list of them
- List the impacts that may happen from each possible failure
- Rank the effects by their severity
- Create an action plan to correct these failures and monitor if they do indeed occur
4. Pareto Analysis
A Pareto chart consists of a bar and line. Each bar represents a category of defect/problem.
The bar's height represents an essential unit of measure, for example, frequency of occurrence or cost.
The bars are ordered from tallest to shortest, designed to visualize which problems have the most significant impact.
To undertake a Pareto analysis, you would follow these steps:
- Define the problem
- Identify the steps that build up to the problem
- Plot each of the causes on a bar graph and on the X-axis
- Analyze each cause and determine the impact it has on the problem
- Quantify that impact with an objective score plotted on the Y-axis
- Complete this for each of the steps and arrange these based on their scores
With this information gathered, you can identify the most effective change to make.
This technique is highly valuable when you have many possible courses of action, and you need to prioritize them.
While similar to the 5 Whys technique, the interviewing method, also called the interrogator/challenger interview, is a method that can be applied before using any of the other tools in this list.
It involves asking the process owner and other relevant stakeholders a series of questions to learn more about their investment in the problem and their motivations.
Step 1: Clarify the problem
Step 2: Ask why the issue matters
Step 3: Ask why the reason above matters to them
Step 4: Ask more questions of this nature until you can gauge their investment in the problem.
Use this technique thoughtfully. It has the potential to cause harm if the interviewee feels threatened or interprets your questions as aggressive. Be sure to use a tone that conveys interest in their experience, not blame.
Whether you choose one of these techniques or combine elements to develop your own approach, the bottom line is simple. Finding the root cause of a problem is the only way to apply a lasting fix and avoid recurrence. When your team is empowered with the tools and skills to look beyond the surface, your continuous improvement culture and results will thrive.