Root cause analysis (RCA) is the process of discovering the root causes of problems in order to identify appropriate solutions. RCA assumes that it is much more effective to systematically prevent and solve for underlying issues rather than just treating ad hoc symptoms and putting out fires.
The 3 Goals:
The first goal of root cause analysis is to discover the root cause of a problem or event.
The second goal is to fully understand how to fix, compensate, or learn from any underlying issues within the root cause.
The third goal is to apply what we learn from this analysis to systematically repeat successes or prevent future issues.
There are a few core principles that guide effective root cause analysis. Not only will these help the analysis quality, but also help the analyst gain trust and buy-in from stakeholders or clients:
- Focus on correcting and remedying root causes rather than just symptoms
- Don’t ignore the importance of treating symptoms for short term relief
- Realize there can be, and often are, multiple root causes
- Focus on HOW and WHY something happened, not WHO was responsible
- Be methodical and find concrete cause-effect evidence to back up root cause claims
- Provide enough information to inform a corrective course of action
- Consider how a root cause can be prevented or replicated in the future
As the above principles illustrate: when we analyze deep issues and causes, it’s important to take a comprehensive and holistic approach. In addition to discovering the root cause, we should strive to provide context and information that will result in an action or a decision.
Change Analysis/Event Analysis
Another useful method of exploring root cause analysis is to carefully analyze the changes leading up to an event.
This method is especially handy when there are a large number of potential causes. Instead of looking at the specific day or hour that something went wrong, we look at a longer period of time and gain a historical context.
- First, we’d list out every potential cause leading up to an event. These should be any time a change occurred for better or worse or benign.
Example: Let’s say the event we’re going to analyze is an uncharacteristically successful day of sales in New York City, and we wanted to know why it was so great so we can try to replicate it. First, we’d list out every touch point with each of the major customers, every event, every possibly relevant change.
- Second, we’d categorize each change or event by how much influence we had over it. We can categorize as Internal/External, Owned/Unowned, or something similar.
Example: In our great Sales day example, we’d start to sort out things like “Sales representative presented new slide deck on social impact” (Internal) and other events like “Last day of the quarter” (External) or “First day of Spring” (External).
- Third, we’d go event by event and decide whether or not that event was an unrelated factor, a correlated factor, a contributing factor, or a likely root cause. This is where the bulk of the analysis happens and this is where other techniques like the 5 Whys can be used.
Example: Within our analysis we discover that our fancy new Sales slide deck was actually an unrelated factor but the fact it was the end of the quarter was definitely a contributing factor. However, one factor was identified as the most likely root cause: the Sales Lead for the area moved to a new apartment with a shorter commute, meaning that she started showing up to meetings with clients 10 minutes earlier during the last week of the quarter.
- Fourth, we look to see how we can replicate or remedy the root cause.
Example: While not everyone can move to a new apartment, our organization decides that if Sales reps show up an extra 10 minutes earlier to client meetings in the final week of a quarter, they may be able to replicate this root cause success.
As we perform a root cause analysis, it’s important to be aware of the process itself. Take notes. Ask questions about the analysis process itself. Find out if a certain technique or method works best for your specific business needs and environments.
If we find the cause of a success or overachievement or early deadline, it’s rarely a bad idea to find out the root cause of why things are going well. This kind of analysis can help prioritize and pre-emptively protect key factors and we might be able to translate success in one area of business to success in another area.