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RCA: what is root cause analysis?
May 2, 2022 11:09:00 AM6 min read

RCA: what is root cause analysis?

In the business world, as in everyday life, problems continually arise. Some, according to the symptoms, require a greater degree of commitment and assistance than others; but in perspective, to solve real problems, you have to eliminate them at the root by detecting the causes that produced them.

The RCA or root cause analysis is a method that is precisely in charge of solving problems and tries to avoid their recurrence by identifying their causes. Several methods address the root cause of a problem, therefore RCA is an iterative method and a tool for continuous improvement.

This methodology is normally used in a reactive way to identify the cause of an effect, reveal problems, and solve them. Root cause analysis is performed after the event has occurred. A good understanding of RTAs allows the methodology to be preventive and allows forecasting of probable events before they happen.

The ACR focuses on the causes of the problems in the processes and not on the symptoms, since alleviating the symptoms or signs will only cause new symptoms to appear, while the causes that are originating them are not determined.


Goals and advantages.

1) The first goal of root cause analysis is to discover the root cause of a problem or event.

2) The second goal is to fully understand how to fix, compensate, or learn from any underlying issues within the root cause.

3) The third goal is to apply what we learn from this analysis to systematically prevent future problems or repeat successes.

Root cause analysis is only as good as what we do with it, so the third goal of RCA is important. We can use it to also modify the core process and system problems in a way that prevents future problems.

Rather than simply treating COVID symptoms, for example, root cause analysis might suggest more consistent mask-wearing, avoiding crowds, and sanitizing hands to reduce the risk of recurrence of the same virus and its recent strains.

Treating individual symptoms can be productive. Solving a large number of problems seems to be doing something. But if we don't diagnose the real root cause of a problem, we are likely to have the same problem over and over again.

Instead of a news editor simply correcting every single omitted Oxford comma, you'll avoid further problems by training your writers to use commas correctly on all future assignments.


Basic principles

Some basic principles guide effective root cause analysis, some of which should already be apparent. These will not only help the quality of the analysis but will also help the analyst gain the trust and acceptance of stakeholders, customers, or patients.

  • Focus on correcting the root causes instead of just the symptoms.
  • Don't ignore the importance of treating symptoms for short-term relief.
  • Keep in mind that 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-and-effect evidence to support 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 principles above illustrate: When looking at problems and root causes, it is important to take a comprehensive and holistic approach. In addition to discovering the root cause, we must strive to provide context and information that will result in an action or decision. Remember: good analysis is actionable analysis.

Of the best-known RCA methods for root cause analysis, we have selected the following:

  1. 5 whys.

One of the most common techniques for performing root cause analysis is the 5 Whys approach. We can also think of this as the approach of the young child with many questions. For each answer to a “why” question, follow up with an “Okay, but why?” question. Children are surprisingly effective at root cause analysis.

Common wisdom suggests that about five “why” questions can get us to most root causes, but we might need as few as two or as many as 50 whys.

The 5 Whys serve as a way to avoid assumptions. By finding detailed answers to incremental questions, the answers become more and more clear and concise. Ideally, the last why will lead to a failed process but can be fixed later.

  1. Cause and effect or fishbone diagram.

Another common technique is the fishbone diagram, also called an Ishikawa diagram, to visually map cause and effect. This can help identify possible causes of a problem and encourage us to follow categorical and branching paths to potential causes to get to the right one. It is similar to the 5 whys but more visual.

We usually start with the problem in the middle of the diagram (the backbone of the fish skeleton), then brainstorm all the possible causes, which are later placed on the outgoing branches of the mainline (the ribs of the fish skeleton).

The categories are very broad and can include things like “people” or “environment”. After grouping the categories, we break them down into smaller parts. For example, in people, we might consider possible root cause factors such as “leadership”, “staffing” and “training”.

As we delve into the possible causes and sub-causes, questioning each branch, we get closer to the sources of the problem. We can use this method to eliminate unrelated categories and identify correlated factors and likely root causes. For the sake of simplicity, carefully consider the categories before creating a diagram.

  1. Pareto chart.

The Pareto chart is a clear example of a tool that allows the selection and identification of elements that are responsible for causing a great impact on process improvement, following the next relationship.

80% of the results are caused by 20% of the factors. This is the concept of Pareto 80/20 analysis. From the perspective of being a method to identify problems, it can be stated that 80% of the problems can be solved by treating 20% of the causes.

  1. Tree diagram.

It is a tool that is used to determine if in fact in a calculation of many options the number of objects that are part of the sample space is required, which can be determined with the construction of a tree diagram.

It consists of a series of steps, and one of them has an infinite number of ways to carry it out. It is used in counting and probability problems. To build a tree diagram, you will start by adding a branch for each of the possibilities, accompanied by its probability. Each of these branches is known as a first-generation branch.

At the end of each first-generation branch, a node is built from which new branches known as second-generation branches depart, depending on the possibilities of the next step, except if the node represents a possible end of the experiment (final node).

Note that the construction of a tree does not depend on having the same number of second-generation branches coming out of each first-generation branch and that the sum of probabilities of the branches of each node must equal 1.

Of course, there are more methods for root cause analysis, but here we have only developed the best known and most used, so that you can implement them in your company, according to the needs and caliber of the problems that arise. You can combine methods or choose a single one that is effective for you to improve processes.


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