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How to find the source of your problems: The root cause analysis.

Before you can solve a problem you need to know why the problem or error happened in the first place. That is simple. Unfortunately, finding the source of your problems is not always that simple.

That is why often we tend to simply “fix things”. We put a bandage on the wound. But in doing so, we do not prevent recurrence of the problem. We do not ensure that the problem will not come back. Naturally, “fixing things” (removing the problem or error) is also important. But it cannot stand alone as you will end up fighting the same errors again and again.

The easiest way to understand the idea of analyzing root causes is to think of an example:

You are going to work and you see that your car has a flat tire. The solution is easy! You fill the tire with air and drive off. But the next day the tire is deflated again.

You could continue to fill the tire with air everyday, but you probably wouldn’t. You would probably ask yourself (or a mechanic) why the tire is flat. In doing so, you are looking for a root cause of the problem (the flat tire).

You will probably come to the conclusion that something pierced the walls of the tire and/or that your tire is too old or worn down. Any of these could be the root cause of the flat tire. If you fix any of these things, it is less likely that the tire is flat tomorrow.

In this article we will focus on how you find the root cause to your problems by performing a root cause analysis.

The meaning of a root cause analysis

The basic concept of a root cause analysis is finding the deepest (root) source or origin (cause) through a structured process that can be verified and documented (analysis).

The principles of root cause analysis assume that it is more effective to systematically prevent problems rather than treating symptoms (like the flat tire) and correcting errors. In other words, we are trying to take problem solving further than simple cause and effect. We need to analyze where a system or process has failed in order to improve the system and process.

Note: A root cause is not only for “problems”. It can be used equally successfully in finding out why something went better than expected. When you find the root cause of why you over-performed in a certain task, product or process, you can use this knowledge to permanently improve this and other scenarios.

However, for the sake of simplicity, we focus on “issues” when giving examples for why we want to make plans for changes.

When performing a root cause, you may need to consult subject matter experts on the problem in question. This will form part of your investigation into the issue. During this work, you will also start to form an idea of how to mitigate or learn from the underlying cause to the problem. When you have found the root cause, you can then use this to prevent the original problem from recurring – by creating a corrective action plan. The corrective action plan is what actually prevents the problem (as opposed to treating symptoms).

It is always important to focus on “why” rather than “who”. We are trying to improve systems and processes – not assigning blame to individuals. Furthermore, you may find that a certain problem has more than one root cause. However, it is important to distinguish between the actual root cause(s) and factors that were simply contributing to the problem (or escalated the issue).

The “5 Whys” technique for root cause analysis

There are many ways of finding a root cause. Here we will focus on one of the more simple ones. It can still be powerful and useful if used correctly and with respect for the purpose: Finding the real source of your problem.

The technique is commonly known as “5 Whys” (or “Five Whys”). The method really is as simple as the name: You ask “why” five times – hence some people say it is like talking to a small child (“why, why, why, why, why”).

The tricky thing is often to figure out when you have found the actual root cause. The reason why this is difficult is because you can often go even “deeper” by asking a sixth and a seventh why, as we will show in the example below.

Example of finding a root cause with the “5 Why” method

Here is a simple example of finding a root cause to a problem:

The problem: My car will not start (example from Wikipedia).

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (First why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)

At this point, you could ask why again and perhaps the answer to the sixth why would be “Because the owner did not read the owners manual”. However, when considering that cause as compared to the fifth cause, it is obvious that this particular problem (the car will not start) may be mitigated equally well by simply servicing the car regularly.

However, one can also argue that I can prevent even more problems by asking that sixth why, reading the owners manual and thus taking even better care of my car. This can be related to how high you would go in a process hierarchy when you are looking for root causes.

To decide if a root cause is an appropriate root cause for your problem, you should reverse the method and describe “how” mitigating the root cause will prevent the problem from recurring – and in doing so, you are already starting your corrective action plan.

Conclusion

In summary:

  • You need to find a root cause to properly prevent a problem or error from happening again.
  • A root cause analysis will help you find the root cause in a structured way.
  • When performing a root cause analysis, you will find the deepest underlying cause of the problems and symptoms that you are experiencing.
  • You decide how “deep” you go looking for a root cause, but the root cause found must, when removed, also mitigate or prevent the problem.
  • If using the “5 Whys” method, asking why five times is generally considered enough to find the root cause.

… and remember: A root cause analysis can also be used on the good surprises in your business (not just problems) to strengthen your processes through the occurence of “accidental” over-performance.

If you want to find a root cause to a certain problem (or over-performance scenario), we recommend using our interactive Root Cause Analyzer. This tool will guide you step by step as you look for a root cause.


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