Root cause analysis is at the heart of a strong continuous improvement culture. Every business problem has a solution, you just need to know where to look. Whether it’s an underperforming asset or a safety incident, if you can correctly identify and analyse an issue’s root cause, you are well on your way to addressing the problem and ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

Where to start

The factors that contribute to a problem typically evolve over time and often involve a combination of people, processes, and physical resources, such as equipment. Complex problems are rarely attributable to just one thing.

It’s important to thoroughly investigate each problem to ensure you are addressing the root cause rather than its symptoms.

What types of problems are addressed by root cause analysis?

While there are literally thousands of different problems to solve, in our line of work, we generally categorise issues into two arenas – special cause variations and common cause variations.

Special cause variations, as the name suggests, are the result of special factors, such as environmental conditions or process changes. These issues can result in serious near-miss safety breaches or the breakdown of equipment.

As you can see by the graph below, special cause variations tend to be identified and accounted for relatively easily as they are unusual and stand out in data sets.

Common cause variations, on the other hand, are the natural variations that occur in a system and are ongoing, consistent, predictable, and quantifiable.

However, these ‘normal’ characteristics can mask problems and sit silently waiting for the opportunity to be found. It’s often only when an organisation needs to increase its performance levels or operate at a higher standard that efficiencies are sought, and then realised.

Clients are generally surprised by the improvements we help them make as they just didn’t know what was possible.

What tools can I use to undertake a root cause analysis?

High performing organisations leverage a number of tools to identify and analyse an issue’s root cause. Two of the more popular models are 5-whys and risk tree analysis.

Recommended root cause analysis tool 1 – 5-whys

The 5-whys model is used to determine the cause-effect relationship in a problem or failure event. The first step is identifying a problem statement. An example of a problem statement might be ‘our machine is operating at 20% below the annual target rate.’

By asking ‘why’ the machine is underperforming, you can create a list of potential causes. But that’s not enough, you need to dig deeper. To understand more you need to ask why again. This gives you the second level of potential causes. You continue asking why until the responses are not useful, out of your control, or you can go no further. The ‘5’ in 5-whys is just a rule of thumb. In some cases, you may need to ask why a few more times before getting to the root cause of the problem.

Recommended root cause analysis tool 2 – Risk tree

A risk tree, usually used to understand and plan safety and process interventions, analyses the sequence of activities in a given scenario. You start by identifying an event of interest, look at the system and its parts, and assess the probability of various successful and unsuccessful outcomes.

A risk tree analysis can help you uncover design and procedural weaknesses, leading to a safer workplace with fewer incidences.

The tools are only half the solution

These models are deceptively simple. However, their genius and power lie in how the methodologies are brought to life and the experience of the team applying them. After all, if you can’t implement the changes, you’ll never realise the full benefits these tools offer.

Successful root cause analysis is as much about identifying causes as it is about change management. Our experienced team works closely with our clients to facilitate discussions, involve their teams, and align everyone around the required outcomes. We find that when people understand the context, and can be part of the solution, they will champion the proposed changes.

Bringing the analysis to life

While talking with supervisors and reviewing desktop data and spreadsheets is a good start, you need to go deeper to achieve lasting results.

Consider going out into the field and taking the time to truly understand what is happening on the ground. Talk with people at various levels on site to understand their challenges and what has happened over time. Be inquisitive so you can ask the right questions at the right time, and most importantly, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly or rely on hunches.

While adopting a root cause analysis philosophy is pivotal to ongoing performance improvements, being able to implement practical solutions is just as important. Training and other support services are great ways to help people understand and adopt the necessary changes.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash