What Is Root Cause Analysis?

Helen Akers

A root cause analysis is a questioning and investigative process that business managers use to determine the true source of a problem. It seeks to move beyond treating the symptoms of the problem and isolates the actual cause. The primary goal of a root cause analysis is to prevent the problem from recurring in the future.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Businesses may become aware of a problem in one of their processes during a number of stages. For example, it may be a defect in the design of a product that shows up during testing. The problem might not show up until the product is in the hands of a customer and the company receives a complaint. If a business is made aware of the problem once the product is in the customer's hands, it results in increased costs.

The costs of fixing the problem are increased since the customer may not continue to purchase products from the company due to his dissatisfaction. If the problem is not resolved by the company in a manner that pleases the customer, this can result in negative word-of-mouth advertising. The customer may very well tell his family, friends, and casual acquaintances about his negative experience. A root cause analysis seeks to prevent this type of scenario.

Rather than placing blame on employees, a root cause analysis examines the process behind the issue. For example, if an employee is involved in an accident while performing his job duties, the company's managers would dig deeper into established work procedures and policies surrounding the job task that led to the injury. Managers might also need to examine any equipment that was involved, including the procedures for its upkeep. The root cause analysis continues to ask why the injury happened and backtrack through all of the processes involved.

If the managers determined that a faulty piece of equipment led to the employee's injury, they would start with the equipment's defect. The analysis might lead them to the discovery that the defective piece of equipment should not have been used. Perhaps it was not determined to be defective by the employee because he did not receive proper training. An analysis might further uncover that the defective equipment was not replaced due to a disagreement between which department in the company should be responsible for purchasing the correct equipment.

The result of the root cause analysis uncovered that the true cause was an unwillingness to foster collaboration between departments and spend the necessary funds to ensure employee safety. To prevent the problem from happening again, the company's managers would need to first ensure that the proper equipment is purchased. In addition, they would need to work towards creating an environment where the two departments would view each other as a team and not as adversaries.

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