What is Root Cause Analysis? A Complete Guide

what is root cause analysis

What is Root Cause Analysis?

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving method aimed at identifying the primary cause of a problem. Unlike other approaches that might focus on addressing immediate symptoms, RCA digs deeper to uncover the underlying issues that lead to a problem. This in-depth analysis ensures that solutions are more effective and lasting, reducing the likelihood of the problem recurring.

This analytical approach encompasses a variety of methods, tools, and techniques designed to uncover the fundamental reasons for a problem or incident. With the primary goal of determining what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it, root cause analysis is a widely used tool to improve safety, efficiency, and quality in various industries.

Principles of Root Cause Analysis

The root cause analysis method is built on 6 key principles. This includes:

  • Focus on the Root Cause, Not Symptoms - believes that while symptoms are often the most visible aspects of a problem, they are merely the manifestations of deeper issues. RCA aims to move beyond these surface-level symptoms to find the underlying cause.
  • Systematic Approach - follows a structured process that ensures a thorough investigation. This typically includes defining the problem, gathering data, identifying possible causes, and determining the root cause.
  • Data-driven - involves collecting accurate information related to the problem, such as time of occurrence, conditions present at the time, and the sequence of events. Data analysis helps in identifying patterns and correlations that might point to the root cause.
  • Involvement of Stakeholder - necessitates the direct involvement of stakeholders impacted by or have knowledge of the problem to provide valuable insights and a more comprehensive understanding of the issue.
  • Prevention-Focused - aims to prevent future occurrence of the problem by addressing the root cause and implementing solutions aimed at eliminating the possibility of recurrence.
  • Continuous Improvement - establishes that RCA is not a one-time activity but part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement.

What is the Goal of Root Cause Analysis?

The primary objective of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is to identify the fundamental causes of problems or incidents to prevent their recurrence, leading to several key outcomes that significantly benefit organizations. By identifying root causes, RCA helps organizations understand underlying issues, allowing them to develop targeted, effective, and sustainable solutions. This thorough approach also enhances processes and systems by uncovering and addressing systemic weaknesses, which can improve overall efficiency, quality, and safety.

RCA's proactive approach prevents future problems, saving time, resources, and effort by reducing the likelihood of recurring issues. Additionally, RCA provides a structured framework for problem-solving. This framework involves systematic data collection and analysis, helping organizations make better decisions regarding process improvements, resource allocation, and strategic planning. Ultimately, RCA fosters a culture of continuous improvement and proactive problem prevention within organizations.

Challenges and Limitations to Root Cause Investigation

Although root cause analysis is a powerful tool for identifying the underlying causes of problems and is key to implementing effective solutions, this approach comes with some challenges and limitations:

Conducting RCA can be time-consuming, especially for complex problems that require extensive data collection and process analysis. The thorough investigation can take considerable time and effort, which might delay the implementation of solutions.

Resource Intensive
RCA often requires significant resources, including skilled personnel, tools, and time. Small organizations or those with limited resources might find it challenging to conduct comprehensive RCA. Additionally, involving multiple stakeholders and experts can add to the resource requirements.

Requires Accurate Data
The effectiveness of RCA relies heavily on the availability and accuracy of data. Incomplete or inaccurate data can lead to incorrect conclusions and ineffective solutions. Organizations need to ensure proper data collection and management practices to support RCA.

Potential for Misidentification
If not conducted properly, there is a risk of misidentifying the root cause, which can lead to ineffective solutions and wasted resources. Proper training and expertise are required to conduct RCA effectively and avoid such pitfalls.

Resistance to Change
Implementing solutions based on RCA findings may require changes in processes or behaviors, which can face resistance from employees or stakeholders. Overcoming this resistance requires effective communication, change management strategies, and sometimes cultural shifts within the organization.


Root Cause Analysis Report: Step-by-Step Guide

root cause analysis step by step

Root cause analysis follows a structured approach to accurately identify underlying causes problems to prevent recurrence. Here’s a detailed guide on the steps involved in conducting an effective RCA:

1. Define the Problem
The first and most crucial step in RCA is to clearly define the problem that the analysis is trying to address. A well-defined problem statement provides a clear understanding of the issue and sets the direction for the analysis. This involves describing the problem in detail, specifying its nature, what happened, where and when it occurred, as well as its impact on the business and its operations. This step also takes into account the symptoms that indicate the presence of the problem, such as specific failures or incidents.

2. Collect Data
Gathering accurate and relevant data is essential for understanding the problem and identifying potential causes. It is a key component of the investigation process where the incident or problem is analyzed. Data collection might include machine maintenance schedules, operator logs, production output records, and recent changes in the manufacturing process. This step involves:

  • Quantitative Data: Collect numerical data such as production logs, maintenance records, and performance metrics.
  • Qualitative Data: Gather descriptive information such as operator observations, incident reports, and interviews with those involved.

3. Identify Possible Causes
Identifying possible causes is a critical step in Root Cause Analysis (RCA), as it helps to uncover the various factors that might contribute to the problem. This step involves a systematic exploration of potential causes using specific tools and techniques such as brainstorming with a diverse group of stakeholders, the fishbone diagram, or the 5 Whys technique.

4. Determine the Root Cause
Determining the root cause involves analyzing the possible causes identified in the previous step to pinpoint the fundamental issue. This step is crucial for developing targeted solutions that address the core problem. The process typically involves:

  • Cause-and-Effect Analysis - This assesses the relationship between potential causes and the problem. This analysis helps in understanding how different factors interact and contribute to the issue. Tools like the Fishbone Diagram and 5 Whys technique can be instrumental in this analysis.
  • Evaluating Evidence - Reviewing the evidence collected during data collection helps in validating the potential causes. This involves examining data points, cross-referencing information, and looking for patterns or correlations that support the identification of the root cause.
  • Validating the Root Cause - Once the root cause is identified, it is essential to validate it by considering all the evidence and ensuring that it directly leads to the problem. This validation ensures that the analysis is accurate and that the solutions developed will effectively address the issue.

5. Develop and Implement Solutions
Once the root cause of the problem has been identified, the next step is to develop and implement solutions that address this root cause. This step involves a series of actions aimed at ensuring that the problem does not recur and that the underlying issues are effectively resolved.

The first part of this step is to brainstorm and develop solutions specifically aimed at addressing the root cause. These solutions should be practical, feasible, and effective. It is important to consider the resources available and the potential impact of the solutions.

After developing the solutions, the next step is to create a detailed implementation plan. This plan should outline the specific actions needed to implement the solutions, assign responsibilities, and set timelines. The plan should also include measurable objectives to track the progress and effectiveness of the implemented solutions.

With the implementation plan in place, the next step is to execute the plan. This involves carrying out the tasks as outlined, ensuring that each action is completed as scheduled. It is important to maintain clear communication and coordination among all involved parties to ensure smooth execution.

6. Verify Effectiveness
After implementing the solutions, it is crucial to verify their effectiveness to ensure that the problem has been resolved and that the solutions are working as intended. This step involves monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting the solutions as necessary.

Continuous monitoring is essential to determine whether the implemented solutions are effective. This involves collecting data and observing the situation to see if the problem has been resolved and if any new issues have arisen. Additionally, analyze the data collected during the monitoring phase to evaluate the effectiveness of the solutions. Compare the current situation to the baseline data collected before the implementation to determine if there have been improvements. If needed, implement changes and adjustments that would refine the solutions or address additional root causes.


7 Different Root Cause Analysis Tools & Techniques

root cause analysis tools and techniques

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) employs various tools and techniques to identify the underlying causes of problems. Here is a closer look at the most commonly used RCA tools and methodologies:

Fishbone Root Cause Analysis

The Fishbone Diagram, also known as the Ishikawa Diagram or cause-and-effect diagram, is a visual tool used to systematically identify potential causes of a problem and organize them into categories. This method helps teams brainstorm and visually map out the various factors contributing to a specific issue, making it easier to see the relationships between causes and effects.

The diagram resembles a fishbone, with the problem or effect at the "head" and potential causes categorized into major groups branching off the "spine." Common categories include People, Processes, Equipment, Materials, Environment, and Management.

Key Features:

  • Comprehensive View: Provides a holistic view of the problem by considering all possible causes.
  • Visual Clarity: Offers a clear and organized way to visualize complex relationships between causes and effects.
  • Facilitates Team Collaboration: Encourages collaborative brainstorming and involvement from multiple stakeholders, ensuring diverse perspectives are considered.

5 Whys Root Cause Analysis

The 5 Whys technique is a simple yet powerful tool used in Root Cause Analysis to identify the underlying cause of a problem. It involves asking "why" multiple times (typically five) to delve deeper into the cause of an issue until the fundamental cause is identified.

The process begins with stating the problem clearly. Then, by repeatedly asking "why" and answering the question, the analysis drills down to the root cause. Each answer forms the basis for the next "why" question, helping to peel away layers of symptoms to reach the core issue.

Key Features:

  • Simplicity: Easy to implement and understand, requiring no complex tools or extensive training.
  • Effectiveness: Helps to quickly identify the root cause of a problem by focusing on direct cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Engagement: Encourages participation and input from team members, fostering a collaborative approach to problem-solving.

PROACT Root Cause Analysis

PROACT is a structured root cause investigation methodology designed to systematically identify and address the underlying causes of problems. PROACT stands for Problem definition, Root cause identification, Option generation and selection, Action plan implementation, and Track effectiveness.

Key Features:

  • Structured Approach: Provides a clear, step-by-step process for conducting RCA, ensuring thorough analysis and effective solutions.
  • Comprehensive: Covers all aspects of problem-solving from definition to tracking effectiveness, leading to sustainable improvements.
  • Focus on Implementation: Emphasizes the importance of implementing and monitoring solutions, ensuring that corrective actions are effective and long-lasting.

Fault Tree Analysis (FTA)

Fault Tree Analysis (FTA) is a top-down, deductive failure analysis technique used to analyze the probability of specific system failures. It begins with an undesired event (the top event) and works backward to identify all possible causes (faults) using logic diagrams.

Key Features:

  • Visual Representation: Provides a clear and visual representation of the relationships between different causes and the top event, making complex interactions easier to understand.
  • Systematic Analysis: Offers a systematic approach to identifying and analyzing potential failure paths, ensuring thorough investigation.
  • Prioritization: Helps prioritize causes based on their contribution to the top event, allowing for focused and effective mitigation measures.

Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA)

Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) is a systematic method for evaluating processes to identify where and how they might fail and assessing the impact of different failures. It helps prioritize which potential failures should be addressed first based on their severity, occurrence, and detectability.

This approach involves identifying potential failure modes, analyzing effects and causes of each failure mode to identify potential causes, evaluating the associated risks for each identified failure mode, calculating the risk priority number, and developing and implementing action plans.

Key Features:

  • Proactive Approach: Identifies potential failures before they occur, allowing for preventive measures to be implemented.
  • Comprehensive Analysis: Provides a detailed and systematic evaluation of potential failure modes and their effects, leading to a thorough understanding of risks.
  • Prioritization of Risks: Helps prioritize risks based on their severity, occurrence, and detectability, ensuring that the most critical issues are addressed first.

Scatter Plot Diagram

A Scatter Plot Diagram is a graphical representation that can be used in root cause investigation to identify and visualize the relationship between two variables. By plotting data points on a graph, it helps to detect correlations, patterns, and trends that may indicate potential causes of a problem. Data points representing pairs of variables are plotted on a graph. The pattern of the points can reveal relationships, such as positive or negative correlations, or lack thereof.

Key Features:

  • Identifies Relationships: Helps to identify and visualize correlations between two variables, making it easier to understand their impact on the problem.
  • Data-Driven Analysis: Provides a factual basis for analysis, allowing for more objective decision-making.
  • Detects Patterns: Can reveal trends and patterns that might not be immediately obvious, helping to pinpoint underlying causes.

Affinity Diagram

An Affinity Diagram is a root cause analysis tool used to organize a large number of ideas or pieces of information into logical groupings based on their natural relationships. This technique is particularly useful during brainstorming sessions to help categorize and prioritize potential causes of a problem. Ideas generated during brainstorming are written on cards or sticky notes. These are then grouped based on their similarities or affinities. Each group is given a heading that describes the common theme.

Key Features:

  • Organizes Information: Helps to organize large amounts of information into manageable and meaningful categories.
  • Encourages Collaboration: Promotes team collaboration and input, ensuring that all relevant ideas are considered.
  • Prioritizes Issues: Makes it easier to prioritize issues by grouping similar ideas together, helping to focus on the most critical areas.

These tools allow organizations to systematically identify root causes. Each tool offers a unique approach to problem-solving, making it important to select the appropriate technique based on the specific context and nature of the problem.



What are KPI in root cause analysis?

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in Root Cause Analysis are metrics used to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the RCA process. Common KPIs include the number of incidents analyzed, time taken to complete RCA, recurrence rate of issues, and the success rate of implemented solutions.

How to prioritize root causes?

Root causes can be prioritized based on their impact, frequency, and feasibility of addressing them. Using tools like the Risk Priority Number (RPN) in Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA), or assessing factors such as severity, occurrence, and detectability, helps determine which root causes should be addressed first.

Who is responsible for RCA quality?

The responsibility for RCA quality typically lies with the RCA team leader or facilitator, who ensures that the analysis is thorough, accurate, and objective. Additionally, all team members, including subject matter experts and stakeholders, contribute to maintaining high-quality standards throughout the RCA process.

What is RCA in QMS?

In Quality Management Systems (QMS), Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a critical process used to investigate and resolve non-conformities, defects, and quality issues. It helps identify the underlying causes of problems and implement corrective actions to prevent recurrence, thereby improving overall quality and compliance.

How to identify root causes?

Root causes can be identified using various tools and techniques, such as the 5 Whys, Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa), Fault Tree Analysis (FTA), Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA), and the Apollo Method. These methods help systematically explore and analyze potential causes to uncover the fundamental issues behind a problem.

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The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Steven Stogner

Steven Stogner is a seasoned safety professional with 14 years in sectors like heavy industrial construction and petrochemical. He is a Certified Safety Professional, skilled in incident analysis and root cause methodologies. Holding a BS in Industrial Technology from Southeastern Louisiana University, he is a recognized contributor to safety publications. At TRADESAFE, Steven enhances product development and supports the creation of key safety resources, strengthening the brand’s commitment to workplace safety.