Root Cause Analysis: Tracing a Problem to Its Origins


In any organization or project, encountering process problems is a common challenge. These problems can hinder productivity, quality, and overall efficiency. To overcome these, it is important to identify their underlying causes, and for this purpose, we conduct a well-executed root cause analysis (RCA). In addition, when you understand the root causes, you can implement targeted solutions and prevent recurrence. This comprehensive guide will explore various root cause analysis techniques. We will also look at the best practices for identifying and resolving the root causes of process issues.

root cause analysis

What Is Root Cause Analysis?

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a powerful technique to identify the origin of a problem and understand why it occurred. RCA involves specific steps and tools to determine, prevent, and understand the occurrence. RCA operates on the premise that systems and events are interconnected, and by tracing back actions, you can uncover the primary cause of the problem.

In RCA, you can consider three fundamental types of causes:

  1. Physical causes – Tangible items or materials that failed (e.g., a car’s brakes stopping working).
  2. Human causes – Actions or omissions by people that led to the problem (e.g., neglecting to fill the brake fluid).
  3. Organizational causes – Faulty systems, processes, or policies contributing to the issue (e.g., lack of designated responsibility for vehicle maintenance).

Hence, RCA uncovers multiple root causes by investigating negative effects and hidden system flaws.

Root Cause Analysis Process

RCA involves five distinct steps:
  1. Define the Problem:

    First, clearly identify the specific symptoms and observable effects of the problem.
  2. Collect Data:

    Once you have defined the problem, gather evidence to confirm the existence and impact of the problem. Further, involve relevant individuals, including experts and frontline staff, to gain a comprehensive understanding.
  3. Identify Possible Causal Factors:

    Next, examine the sequence of events and conditions that lead to the problem. In addition, identify as many causal factors as possible to ensure a comprehensive analysis.
  4. Identify the Root Cause(s):

    Next, dig deeper into each causal factor and understand the reason for its existence and uncover the real reason behind the problem.
  5. Recommend and Implement Solutions:

    Lastly, develop actionable solutions to prevent the problem from recurring. In addition, plan ahead, predict potential failures and analyze the impact of the proposed solutions.

Tips for Performing Effective Root Cause Analysis

  1. Collaborate with other teams:  Gain diverse experiences and expertise from various teams. By doing so, different perspectives and causes can be uncovered, leading to a broader understanding of the situation.

  2. Avoid the blame game: Create a blame-free culture that encourages the open sharing of ideas and insights to diagnose issues effectively.

  3. Ask open-ended questions: Approach the analysis with fresh eyes, leaving assumptions behind, and use open-ended questions to reveal new insights.

Key Points

Root Cause Analysis is a valuable process for understanding and solving problems effectively.

  1. Identify negative events, analyze complex systems, and pinpoint key points of failure as root causes.

  2. Utilize tools like Cause and Effect Diagrams and 5 Whys during the analysis, while also employing tools like FMEA and Kaizen to minimize future needs for RCA.

  3. As an analytical tool, RCA provides a comprehensive, system-wide review of significant problems and their underlying events and factors.

Root Cause Analysis Techniques

1. Unlocking Insights: Brainstorming the Root Cause

One of the foundational techniques for conducting RCA is brainstorming. By gathering a diverse team of individuals and fostering open and judgment-free discussions, you can generate valuable insights. For instance, when faced with a problem like frequent delays in project delivery, a brainstorming session can reveal potential causes such as inadequate resource allocation, poor communication, or insufficient planning.

Here’s an example:

  • Problem: Frequent delays in project delivery.
  • Brainstorming Session: Gather a team and brainstorm possible causes, such as inadequate resource allocation, poor communication, or insufficient planning.

2. Root Cause Analysis with Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa Diagram)

A fishbone diagram makes it easier to visualize the potential causes of a problem. This powerful technique organizes causes into categories such as equipment, methods, materials, people, and environment. Taking the example of a high defect rate in manufactured products, the analysis can uncover root causes like faulty machinery, outdated manufacturing methods, low-quality materials, lack of employee training, or suboptimal working conditions.

  • Problem: High defect rate in manufactured products.
  • Categories: Equipment, Methods, Materials, People, Environment
  • Analysis: Analyze each category to determine possible root causes, such as faulty machinery, outdated manufacturing methods, low-quality materials, lack of employee training, or suboptimal working conditions.

3. Unraveling the Why: The Power of 5 Whys in Root Cause Analysis

An effective way to delve deeper into the underlying causes of a problem is the 5 Whys technique. By repeatedly asking “why,” you can uncover multiple layers of causation. For instance, when faced with increasing customer complaints about product durability, asking “why” five times reveals insights into manufacturing process inefficiencies and quality control measures.

  • Problem: Increasing customer complaints about product durability.
  • First Why: Why are customers complaining about product durability?
  • Second Why: Why are the products not durable?
  • Third Why: Why is the manufacturing process not producing durable products?
  • Fourth Why: Why are quality control measures failing to identify durability issues?
  • Fifth Why: Why are the quality control measures not thorough enough?

4. Focused Solutions with Pareto Root Cause Analysis

Applying the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, helps prioritize potential root causes. By focusing on the vital few factors that contribute to the majority of the problem, you can optimize the resources. For example, when dealing with excessive customer churn in a subscription-based service, analyzing customer feedback may reveal that poor customer support and frequent service disruptions are the primary causes, warranting immediate attention.

  • Problem: Excessive customer churn in a subscription-based service.
  • Data Analysis: Analyze customer feedback and identify the top reasons for churn, such as poor customer support, frequent service disruptions, or lack of new features.
  • Focus: Addressing the vital few causes that account for the majority of churn can have the most significant impact on reducing customer attrition.

5. Leveraging Data Analysis and Trend Identification

Data analysis plays a vital role in pinpointing potential root causes. For instance, when facing declining website traffic, analyzing website analytics data can identify patterns or changes in user behavior, traffic sources, page performance, or marketing campaigns. In addition, this information can help uncover the root cause, such as a recent algorithm update affecting search engine rankings or technical issues causing slow page load times.

  • Problem: Declining website traffic.
  • Data Analysis: Analyze website analytics data to identify any patterns or changes in user behavior, traffic sources, page performance, or marketing campaigns.
  • Possible Causes: The root cause could be a recent algorithm update affecting search engine rankings, technical issues causing slow page load times, or a decline in marketing efforts.

Root Cause Analysis Tools

Root Cause Analysis
Root Cause Analysis
Root Cause Analysis


Identifying the root causes of process problems is essential for effective problem-solving and continuous improvement. By utilizing root cause analysis techniques like brainstorming, fishbone diagrams, the 5 Whys, Pareto Analysis, and data analysis, you can gain valuable insights into the underlying factors contributing to the problems. Remember, addressing the root causes directly leads to more sustainable and long-term solutions.

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