Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a design principle that helps us ask the right questions so that we can gain a deep understanding of the problem.
Humans have the tendency to think there is only a single cause to a specific problem. A big chunk of human society is approaching problem-solving in that manner.
Problems can be solved! Fortunately for us, there are ways to make problem-solving more efficient. We can utilize our powerful minds and design the world around us.
It doesn’t matter, if the problem we are looking to solve is about physical product, service experience or a digital interface. This design principle of finding the root cause is essential. Let’s look at how to find the root of the problem so we can fix it once and for all.
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem-solving used for identifying the root causes of faults or problems. The primary aim of root cause analysis is: to identify the factors that resulted in the nature, the magnitude, the location, and the timing of the harmful outcomes (consequences) of one or more past events; to determine what behaviours, actions, inactions, or conditions need to be changed to prevent the problem from recurring.
RCA allows us to understand problems in terms of their causes. The goal is to find the first event that caused the whole mess.
Problems we are facing as designers and as human beings have many causes and are in general difficult/complex problems. Finding the root cause is easier said than done.
Yet, there is a simple (not necessarily easy) way of finding the root cause you could use next time you encounter a worthy problem.
Define the problem
Identify what is happening and the specific symptoms. The better picture you can paint the easier it will be to find the root cause.
Once you understand the problem the solution will appear.
Look at the problem from different perspectives. Put yourself in the shoes of everyone who have touch points with the problem. If possible go and experience its context.
Analyze the situation fully before you can look at the causal factors. Talk to experts who are related to the problem, talk with “victims” who are having the problem. Find proof that the problem exists. All this will help you gain better understanding of the problem.
Understand the problem before you can solve it.
What are the possible causal factors? Identify the most obvious causes for the problem. Dig deeper and start identifying as many causal factors as possible. Look at the chain of events that led to the problem. Were there any specific conditions or other related problems that lead to the main problem?
Drill the problem
Get the heavy tools and start breaking down the problem to small chunks. This will help you understand and focus better on the different potential causes.
Write down the problem and then next to it start writing points that make up the bigger problem. Keep doing that until you can’t break down the smaller problems anymore.
“The Five Whys” lead to enlightenment
Here is a hypothetical example:
- Why did your car stop?
– Because the wheel broke
- Why did the wheel brake?
– Because I didn’t go to the mechanic this morning.
- Why didn’t you go to the repair man this morning?
– Because I forgot.
- Why did you forget?
– Because my phone reminder didn’t show up.
- Why did your phone reminder didn’t show up?
– Because I set it up on my desktop app and then it didn’t sync with my phone.
This illustrated how the initial cause “the wheel broke” actually wasn’t the real problem. The sync issues of the reminder app was what led to this chain of events.
The information gathered from using the five whys can be used to add information to cause and effect diagram.
You must see all the causes (roots) before you can focus on resolving specific one. Everything is connected. A proper strategic approach can solve multiple causes at once. To be able to have such an approach, you need to have a good holistic overview.
The root cause of the problem
After identifying the causal factors it is time to locate the root of the problem. Iterate with the same methods from above and focus on specific cause factors. Doing that will allow you to go deep and find the real problem that needs to be fixed.
Find out if there is really a problem. Make sure you understand the problem as well as possible. Research it, analyze it and draw the full picture.
Focus on a strategic approach that can allow you to have a bigger impact on the problem for less effort. Trim the root of the problem at the right place. It can take care of several other causal factors and resolve the problem.