While this article will focus on finding and resolving the root causes of business problems, cause analysis is something we apply to common problems in all areas of life.
For example, if your car doesn’t start, you have a few options. You might take a bus to work instead or ask a friend to give you a lift. This solves the immediate problem of getting to work but leaves you with a long-term transportation challenge.
On the other hand, you might guess the problem is a dead battery and jump-start the car. If it works, you are on your way, but you risk getting stranded again without understanding why the battery died (the root cause). A qualified mechanic may use their experience, skills, and tools to determine that the battery is not the problem and that your alternator needs to be replaced.
These quick fixes could be called a "short-term countermeasure." It helps now, but we still need a long-term countermeasure that ensures your car is more reliable, such as that possible alternator repair or replacement.
Deeply understanding why there is a problem is the only way to apply lasting solutions rather than bandaids.
What is Root Cause Analysis?
Root cause analysis (RCA) is finding the underlying causes of problems to uncover and apply appropriate solutions (or countermeasures). Cause analysis is based on the idea that it is much more effective to systematically identify the basis of issues rather than just treating the immediate symptoms in a trial-and-error way. Cause analysis can be achieved with principles and techniques that help get to the heart of a variation or trend. Doing so requires looking past the superficial cause and effect connections. With cause analysis, you can identify where processes or systems failed.
The Principles of Cause Analysis
Several fundamental principles structure effective cause analysis, some of which are already apparent. Applying these ideas will help team members gain trust and engagement from internal stakeholders, customers, or patients.
As you can see, when analyzing deep issues and causes, it is essential to take a comprehensive and complete approach. The search for the root cause should provide context and data to inform the following action or decision. The best cause analysis leads to effective action.
The Goals and Benefits of Cause Analysis
The number one objective or cause analysis is to address the root reason for a problem or adverse event. The next goal is to determine how to fix, alleviate, and learn from the underlying issues of the root cause. Finally, the third goal is to take what was learned from this analysis and apply it systemically to prevent future problems or to replicate success.
Treating the symptoms may feel good in the short term, but if you don’t diagnose the core cause, you’ll likely have the same problem repeatedly. For example, if you get a crack in your sidewalk, it may look like progress to repave it. However, if a tree root caused the damage, it will eventually crack again. So until you solve the problem of the tree, you’ll be paving over cracks.
Cause Analysis Tools and Techniques
There are many strategies and tools for cause analysis, and this isn’t a complete list, but these are some of the most widely used and impactful tools.
The 5 Whys
One of the most popular root cause problem-solving tools is the 5 Whys. Much like a small child repeating the question, “Why?” again after every answered attempt, conventional wisdom suggests that about five tries at answering “Why” questions can lead to the root cause of most problems. Pro tip: Five isn't a magic number. The point is to keep asking why as many times as it takes to get to what seems like the root cause.
For example, perhaps your customer service scores have taken a dip. The conversation might be:
Why are customer satisfaction scores down?
Because customers are unhappy with the service they get when they call us.
Why are customers unhappy with our service on the phone?
Because they have to wait on hold for 15 minutes before their call is answered.
Why do customers have to wait 15 minutes?
Because we don’t have enough staff to answer the calls. Or because the calls have become more complex and take longer to solve.
Why don’t we have enough staff to answer the calls?
Because call volume has increased unexpectedly (or the call length).
Why has call volume increased?
Because the order tracking feature of the website isn’t working, people are calling instead.
This is an excellent example because it would be tempting for some leaders to stop after the third question and schedule more staff when the real solution is to fix the order-tracking mechanism. It also illustrates the fact that what the customer complains about doesn’t always reveal the root cause. Customers complained about long hold times in this case, not the broken website feature.
The 5 Whys technique helps you avoid jumping to conclusions. Instead, by digging deeper with each question, the failed process will be revealed and corrected.
The Fishbone Diagram
Another popular methodology is the Fishbone, or Ishikawa, diagram that visually maps the contributing factors and effects of problems. Visualization can help uncover possible causes for a problem by forcing team members to work in a structure with categories of potential causes. It is particularly useful for complex problems or those with more than one root cause. Imagine the outline of a fish’s skeleton. The head represents the problem statement, and the ribs create sections for each category. The categories you select might vary based on the nature of your organization, but they typically include the following:
Machine (technology, equipment)
Material (consumables, information)
Measurement (analysis, inspection)
Human (employees, leadership)
Management (standard work, training)
The fishbone approach ensures that each category that may be contributing to the problem gets due attention, and it helps teams continue to assess the issue even after one potential cause is revealed.
Best Practices for Effective Cause Analysis
As you can see, the key to finding and curing the root cause of problems is asking intelligent questions that lead you closer to answers. Of course, why is a critical question, but it should be accompanied by “how,” “what about,” “when,” and “are we sure?”
The more you dig and drill down into every potential cause, the more likely you are to find the real problem or problems. In addition, your effort should lead you to understand how to prevent the issue from happening again.
Make cause analysis a team sport
Doing a cause analysis alone is challenging because you may have biases or blind spots. However, getting others involved brings fresh eyes to the issue and provides a way to challenge assumptions. Additionally, when people are engaged in finding the root cause of a problem, they are more invested in solving it and preventing recurrence.
Use a structured process and look for ways to improve it
Using a standard method for cause analysis is essential for two reasons. First, team members become comfortable and adept at the approach and are more consistently successful at cause identification. The second reason is that if you use the same technique each time, you can evaluate the process itself and look for ways to make it even more effective.
Apply cause analysis to positive outcomes as well as problems
Did you have the best week for sales ever? Did your customer satisfaction score jump noticeably? The techniques and principles we mentioned can be used to find the root causes of these successes so they can be replicated or expanded, just make sure you're not reacting to "noise" in your metric (using "Control Charts" is a great way to separate signal from noise, to make sure you are reacting only to meaningful changes in the metric -- the signals).
Cause analysis may seem like common sense, but like anything else, the devil is in the details. When focusing on the immediate symptom or complaint, it is easy to miss something important. These principles and techniques can help your team guard against that temptation and ensure that issues are addressed a the source.