Root Cause Analysis

Are you looking for a guided tour through the topic of Root Cause Analysis, something like a short book or training manual? If so, start off with the RCA Article Guide.

Do you need to solve a difficult problem?
... investigate an accident or safety incident?
... eliminate waste and maximize value?
... figure out why equipment keeps failing?
... prevent simple mistakes from becoming huge problems?
... increase the reliability and availability of your systems?
... understand how a problem occurred so you can make sure it never happens again?

Root cause analysis might be the answer, or at least a major part of it, primarily because it's focused on understanding how problems occur. You could just treat the symptoms of the problem, of course, but that only provides relief in the short term -- it does nothing to prevent the problem from coming back again. If you want a solution that will last, you have to do something to address the underlying factors that create the problem in the first place. These underlying factors are typically called root causes, and any method you might use to understand a problem and find its root causes can be called root cause analysis.

The primary topic of this website -- at least this part of it -- is root cause analysis. Here you will find articles, tools, definitions, guidelines, tips, etc., all written, collected, or edited by someone that has spent over a decade doing and studying root cause analysis. Some of what you'll find here is theory and philosophy, but much of it is entirely practical and based on experience gained from investigating safety incidents, equipment failures, project cost overruns, supply chain issues, software errors, process difficulties, and more.

Below are some links to major sections of this site, each dedicated to root cause analysis. Use these to explore the site, or keep reading the rest of this page to gain a further understanding of what root cause analysis is and why it's important.

Quick Root Cause Analysis Links

Root Cause Articles Tools & Methods Resource Links Root Cause Wiki

What is Root Cause Analysis?

Bad things happen. The extent of the damage now, or whether bad things happen again, is a product of how we respond. Often without any analysis, we charge ahead with hastily-conceived, ill-considered solutions that merely sweep the badness under the edge of the rug, to be inadvertently revealed at some later date... potentially in some much worse incarnation. What we need is a method that helps us find the core issues affecting our performance.

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a methodology for finding and correcting the most important reasons for performance problems. It differs from troubleshooting, problem solving, and failure analysis; these disciplines typically seek solutions to specific difficulties, whereas RCA is directed at underlying issues.

  • As a business process improvement tool, RCA seeks out unnecessary constraints as well as inadequate controls.
  • In safety and risk management, it looks for both unrecognized hazards and broken or missing barriers.
  • It helps target CAPA (corrective action and preventive action) efforts at the points of most leverage.
  • RCA is an essential ingredient in pointing organizational change efforts in the right direction.
  • Finally, it is probably the only way to find the core issues contributing to your toughest problems.
tank farm fire needs root cause analysis ship collisions need root cause investigation plane / airport accident cause analysis needed

Why use Root Cause Analysis?

While it is often used in environments where there is potential for critical or catastrophic consequences, this is by no means a requirement. It can be employed in almost any situation where there is a gap between actual and desired performance. Furthermore, RCA provides critical info on what to change and how to change it, within systems or business processes.

Significant industries using root cause analysis include manufacturing, construction, healthcare, transportation, chemical, petroleum, and power generation. The possible fields of application include operations, project management, quality control, health and safety, business process improvement, change management, and many others.

Your problems may not be as spectacular as the ones pictured above, but they probably have many similarities under the surface. This is the point of root cause analysis -- to dig below the symptoms and find the fundamental, underlying decisions and contradictions that led to the undesired consequences. If you want your problems to go away, your best option is to kill them at the root.

What info does this site provide?

This site offers information on the purpose, methods, and process of root cause analysis. It currently does not teach you how to perform RCA, although that is a long-range goal. Instead, it offers articles related to the underlying theory and philosophy, as well as practical tools and tips for performing root cause analysis successfully.


Popular Articles

What is Root Cause Analysis really about?

We form organizations to get work done. As the work we want to do gets larger and more complex, so do our organizations. At some point, we move beyond the capability to function without extensive, potentially complicated processes and systems. These require management. However, we are human and we make mistakes. All the time. Lots of them. Our processes and systems are imperfect, and so is our ability to manage them. We cannot predict the future with any accuracy, and we are unable to see all the potential ramifications of the actions we take. Stuff happens.

In one way or another, all the various management tools and methods that have been developed over the years are about improving how we manage ourselves, our processes, and our systems. We want productivity, we want quality, we want reliability, and we want safety. We want these things now, and in the future. In fact, we want these things to get better over time. This is called continuous improvement.

Root cause analysis is a process of continuous improvement. It is not a pre-defined set of tools and methods, and it is not a flash in the pan management fad. It recognizes that we are going to experience problems, because that is an unavoidable aspect of being human. It is a guiding philosophy that says "find the real, important reasons for our problems, understand why they exist, and change the conditions that create them!"

There are many different versions of root cause analysis in existence, and the differences between them are not always cosmetic. However, I would put forth the following as a general philosophy that is shared almost universally: root causes exist, and they can be found (and uniquely identified) through careful, evidence-based investigation and thoughtful analysis. Finding and identifying root causes during an investigation adds significant value by pointing out significant, underlying, fundamental conditions that increase the risk of adverse consequences. Targeting corrective measures at the identified root causes is the best way to ensure that similar problems do not occur in the future.

Where to Find More Root Cause Info

There's plenty of helpful root cause analysis information on this site, but if my writing style doesn't appeal to you, there are many other good resources available. Many are listed on my RCA Resources page, but here are a few really good ones to get you started.

  • :: A short article about root cause analysis on a site that also contains a wealth of information about systems thinking.
  • :: The American Society for Quality has been promoting root cause analysis for many years; this page on the ASQ site has some quite useful info.
  • :: This page gives a concise summary of root cause analysis, but the real reason to visit the site is its huge library of articles on business analysis tools.
  • :: The HPT (Human Performance Technology) Treasures site has a wealth of information about Human Performance, analysis, and related topics.

Finally, I'll make one last pitch for my own root cause analysis guides. There are two versions (short or long), one of which may be perfect if what you're looking for is free root cause analysis training material.

by Bill Wilson
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Bill Wilson © 2004-2020

Last updated: September 17, 2021 at 9:26 am

3 Responses


    • Bill Wilson says:

      Hi Rodger, thanks for commenting. I’ve been thinking about how to answer your question. The first answer that popped into my head was “investigate and analyze the problem using the tools I’ve described on this site”… but that’s too obvious, and to be completely honest, a pretty useless answer. I think what you may be asking is more like “how do I take the outputs from these tools and methods and turn them into valid and useful root cause statements”. Is that the case?

  2. Gordon says:

    Hi Bill
    Just wanted to thank you for taking the time out to create this page for root cause analysis. Really useful especially the links.

    Many thanks.

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