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As the name suggests, Root Cause Analysis deals with identifying the origin of a problem and finding a solution for the same so that the problem is treated at the root level where the real cause exists and not only the symptoms of the problem are treated.
Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis with an Example

For example, a broken wrist hurts a lot but the painkillers will only take away the pain not cure the wrist; you’ll need a different treatment to help the bones to heal properly. In this example, the problem is a broken wrist, the symptom is pain in the wrist and the root cause is broken bones. So, unless the bones are mended, the pain will not be cured.


This example is just about physical health but what do you do when it comes down to work? In medicine, it’s easy to understand the difference between treating the symptoms and curing the condition. But what about a problem at work?


It wouldn’t be very smart to just treat the symptoms and consider the problem to be resolved. You need to pause and consider if there is a more important and critical reason, a deeper problem that needs to be resolved there. If you only treat the symptoms, then that would be like applying plaster to the cracks in a dam – it will just be a while before new cracks appear and the entire dam comes crashing down.


However, if you dig deep into the problem to find the actual root cause of the problem, you can fix the underlying systems and processes so that it goes away for good.

Root Cause Analysis or RCA

Root Cause Analysis or RCA is a very popular and frequently used technique to help people find the answer as to why a problem happened in the first place. Its objective is to identify the origin of a problem using a specific set of steps, with associated tools, to find the primary cause of the problem, so that you can:

  1. Determine what happened
  2. Determine why it happened
  3. Figure out what to do to decrease the possibility that it will happen again

RCA assumes that systems and events are interlinked. An action in one area triggers an action in another and another and so on. By backtracking these actions, you can discover where the origin of the problem and how it grew into the symptom you’re now facing.

You’ll usually find three basic types of causes

  1. Physical causes – Tangible, material items failed in some way (for example, a car’s brakes stopped working).
  2. Human causes – People did something wrong, or did not do something that was needed. Human causes typically lead to physical causes. For example, no one filled the brake fluid, which led to the brakes failing.
  3. Organizational causes – A system, process, or policy that people use to take decisions or do their work is faulty. For example, no one person was responsible for vehicle maintenance, and everyone assumed someone else had filled the brake fluid.

RCA looks at all the three types of causes. It involves scrutinizing the patterns of negative effects, finding hidden flaws in the system and discovering specific actions that contributed to the problem. This often means that RCA reveals more than one root cause.

The Root Cause Analysis Process

RCA has five identifiable steps.

Step One

Define the Problem – It includes seeing what is exactly happening and finding out the specific symptoms of the problem.

Step Two

Collect Data – It includes finding proof that the problem exists. And finding out how long the problem has existed and the impact of the problem.

Complete analysis of the situation is necessary before you can move on to look at the factors that contributed to the problem. To maximize the effectiveness of your RCA, get together everyone – experts and front line staff – who understands the situation. People who are most familiar with the problem can help lead you to a better understanding of the issues.

Step Three

Identify Possible Causal Factors – It includes finding the sequence of events that led to the problem, the conditions that allowed the problems to occur. And other problems that surround the occurrence of the central problem. At this step, try your best to find as many causal factors as possible.


Very frequently, people identify one or two factors and then stop but that’s not enough. With Root Cause Analysis, it is important to dig deeper into the problem to find out as many causes as possible instead of just stopping at the surface.

Use these tools to help identify causal factors

  • Appreciation  – Use the facts and ask “So what?” to determine all the possible consequences of a fact.
  • 5 Whys  – Ask “Why?” until you get to the root of the problem.
  • Drill Down  – Break down a problem into small, detailed parts to better understand the big picture.
  • Cause and Effect Diagrams  – Create a chart of all of the possible causal factors, to see where the trouble may have begun.

Step Four

Identify the Root Cause(s) – It includes finding out why the causal factors exist and the real reason behind the problem that occured.


You can use the same tools as used in Step 3 to identify the causal factors to look at the roots of each factor. These tools are designed to encourage you to dig deeper at each level of cause and effect.

Step Five

Recommend and Implement Solutions – It includes finding solution to prevent the problem from happening again, implementation of the solution. And the responsibility of the implementation to be given to someone and the risks involved in implementing the solution.

Failure Mode and Effects Analysis  (FMEA)

It is very important to thoroughly analyze the cause-and-effect process and find out the changes needed for the different systems. It’s also important to plan ahead to predict the effects of your solution. This way, we can identify the potential failures before they happen.

One way of predicting potential failures is to use Failure Mode and Effects Analysis  (FMEA). This tool builds on the idea of risk analysis to identify points where a solution could fail. FMEA is also a great system to implement across your organization; the more systems and processes that use FMEA at the start, the less likely you are to have problems that need RCA in the future.


Impact Analysis  is another useful tool here. This helps you explore possible positive and negative consequences of a change on different parts of a system or organization.


Another great strategy to adopt is Kaizen , or continuous improvement. This is the idea that continual small changes create better systems overall. Kaizen also emphasizes that the people closest to a process should identify places for improvement. Again, with Kaizen alive and well in your company, the root causes of problems can be identified and resolved quickly and effectively.