Two Fundamental Ways to Apply Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis involves identifying the root cause of a problem, with the primary objective being to design a solution to address this root cause. In so doing, our aim is to prevent the problem from recurring. There are is however one important factor we need to consider when identifying root causes, and that is to understand that an individual problem can occur as the result of more than a single root cause. Not all of these possible root causes may be prevalent, and their prevalence or lack thereof is an important factor in determining how we apply root cause analysis.

In most instances, when a problem is detected, there is a single root cause responsible, and this is the prevalent root cause. This is the root cause that has been proven, through concrete evidence, to be prevalent at the point in time that the problem solving event is taking place. Eliminating this root cause will stop the problem from occurring, and prevent it from recurring in the future as a consequence of that specific root cause. It may however happen that the problem recurs when another possible root cause becomes prevalent. A fresh round of problem solving could identify the newly prevalent root cause and a solution could then be developed and implemented to address it, once again solving the problem. This is how a lot of problem solving is conducted in practice, particularly first-line problem solving. The advantage of this approach is that the lead time for solving the problem is shortened due to the approach being a very focused one.

There are however instances in which a wider analysis is desirable, one in which we do not focus only on the prevalent root cause, but on all possible root causes. To do this we first identify possible causes, but then, instead of relying on evidence to investigate these more deeply to get to a root cause, we evaluate all of the possible paths each cause could take. Each possible cause would then terminate in a possible root cause. We would end up with a group of possible root causes, each of which could potentially cause the problem to occur should it become prevalent. If we take this approach in solving a current problem, one or more of these possible root causes may be prevalent, and by implementing solutions for these the problem would be solved. We could however also consider and implement solutions to address possible causes that are not prevalent, but which, since they are possible, may become prevalent at some point in the future. Some of these possible root causes my be highly improbable and may not warrant the implementation of a solution. In some cases solutions may require too much effort for very little benefit. A balance needs to be struck when choosing which possible root causes to address and which to monitor and then manage should they become prevalent.

Here are just a few examples of where this second approach to root cause analysis may be taken:

  • Identifying the risks in a business, what their causes may be and ways to prevent these risks from manifesting
  • Identifying all the possible ways in which a piece of equipment may fail and the maintenance tasks required to prevent these failures
  • Developing procedures that frontline workers may use to respond to all of the possible quality problems that may occur on a production line
  • Designing a new product and ensuring it meets its purpose
  • Conducting a safety audit in a specific area of an organisation

There are a wide range of root cause analysis techniques that we could use to facilitate both of the above approaches to root cause analysis. Look out for our upcoming live root cause analysis course where we will explore all of these techniques, and also see our on-demand 5-Why course on our website.

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