How do I prioritize events more effectively

The root cause analysis - explained using examples and methods

As a starting point to understand what root cause analysis is and how it works, you can think of some common problems. If I am sick and feel sick at work, I go to the doctor and ask for advice about where the illness might be coming from. If my car doesn't start, I'll get a mechanic to work out the problem. If my company is doing worse (or better) than expected in a certain area, I try to find out why.

Any of these examples could easily be remedied. If I feel sick, I just stay at home and put a bucket by the bed. I can leave the broken car in front of the front door and take the bus instead. But these solutions only address the symptoms, not the cause - the deeper reason could be gastrointestinal flu in one case, which requires drug treatment, or in the other case a defective alternator that needs to be repaired. In order to get to the bottom of a problem and find a solution, I therefore have to carry out a root cause analysis. Only when I have found the cause can I fix it.

In this article, the term “root cause analysis” is defined first. Then common techniques of root cause analysis are presented, some methods are explained in detail and examples are given.

So far so good. Now what is a root cause analysis?

A root cause analysis (RCA for short) is a process with which the deeper cause of problems is determined in order to find suitable solutions. The basic assumption is that it is far more effective to systematically prevent and eliminate underlying problems rather than just tinkering with the symptoms.

In root cause analysis, various principles, techniques and methods can be used to find the cause of an occurrence or a development. In addition to uncovering simple cause-and-effect relationships, root cause analysis has the potential to actually tackle process or system-related errors at the root.

Goals and Benefits

The first goal Root cause analysis is to find the cause of a problem or event.

The second goal is to understand in detail how the problems underlying the cause can be eliminated, compensated for or prevented in the future.

The third goal is the application of the knowledge gained from the analysis to systematically prevent problems in the future or to reproduce successes.

The third goal is particularly important, because ultimately the best analysis is of no use if there is no subsequent action. With root cause analyzes, problems that affect core processes and systems can also be solved in such a way that errors no longer occur in the future. In American football, for example, the result of a cause analysis could look like this: If a player suffers a concussion, it would make sense - instead of merely relieving symptoms - to have the player wear a helmet in future so that such an injury does not happen again .

On the surface, treating individual symptoms may seem productive, because fixing multiple issues at once looks like progress. But if you don't diagnose the root cause, you will likely encounter the same problem again and again. Finally, a newspaper editor not only adds missing commas, but will instruct her authors to study the Duden thoroughly so that the punctuation is correct in the future.

Basic principles

A few basic principles apply to root cause analysis, some of which should be obvious. These principles not only improve the quality of the analysis, but also help the analyst to secure the trust and support of those involved, customers or patients.

  • Focus on eliminating and correcting the cause rather than treating the symptoms.
  • Treating symptoms can still be important in improving the situation in the short term.
  • Keep in mind that there could be multiple causes, and often they are.
  • What matters is HOW and WHY something happened, not WHO was responsible for it.
  • Proceed methodically and collect concrete evidence of causal relationships in order to be able to substantiate underlying assumptions.
  • Provide sufficient information so that corrective action can be taken.
  • Think about how a cause can be prevented (or reproduced) in the future.

The principles mentioned show that a thorough analysis of problems and their causes requires a comprehensive, holistic approach. In addition to uncovering the cause, you should also determine relationships and information that can then serve as a basis for action or decision-making. In short, an analysis is good if it enables appropriate action.

Techniques and methods for performing an effective root cause analysis

There are numerous techniques and strategies that can be used to analyze root causes. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it does reflect some of the most common and useful techniques.

5 Why method

One of the most commonly used root cause analysis techniques is the 5 whys or 5 whys. The process is somewhat similar to the probing questions that toddlers sometimes pester their parents with. Every time a question about WHY is answered, the next, even deeper question follows: “Yes, but WHY?” So basically children are very good cause analysts. According to a general opinion, five WHY questions usually lead to the root of the evil - depending on the case, however, 50 or only two questions may be necessary.

Example: Again, take the above example of the injured football player. At first, the player describes a problem: Why do I have such a bad headache? That's the first WHY.
First answer: Because I can't see properly.
Second why: Why can't I see properly?
Second answer: Because my head hit the ground.
Third why: Why did I hit my head on the floor?
Third answer: I was knocked over in a duel and hit my head.
Fourth why: Why did it hurt so much when it hit the ground?
Fourth answer: Because I didn't wear a helmet.
Fifth why: Why didn't I wear a helmet?
Fifth answer: Because we didn't have enough helmets in the locker room.

Aha! After answering these five questions, it turns out that the concussion was most likely caused by a lack of helmets. So in the future, the risk of a concussion can be reduced by making sure that a helmet is available for every football player. (However, even a helmet does not always protect against a concussion. Therefore: always be careful!)

The 5 Whys method prevents mere speculation. As you approach the cause, question after question, the answers become more revealing every time. Ideally, after the last question, you come across a buggy process that can be fixed.

Change / event analysis

Another practical method of root cause analysis is to carefully evaluate the changes that preceded an event.
This method is particularly useful when there are many possible causes. The focus here is not only on the immediate point in time when something went wrong, but on a longer period of time. In this way, the entire prehistory of the incident can be reconstructed.

1. First, list all the potential causes for the event. These causes can be changes of all kinds, for better or for worse.

Example: Suppose the event under investigation is an exceptionally high-volume sales day in the Berlin office, and you want to know why it went so well on that day to be able to repeat the success. To do this, you first compile all contact points with all major customers, all events and all possibly relevant changes.

2. Second, rate the changes and events based on how much you influenced them. Possible classifications would be internal / external, company / third-party property, etc.

Example: In the example above, the following events are determined: A sales representative presented a new presentation on social impact (internal), it was the last day of the quarter (external), and it was the first day of spring (external).

3. In the third step, go through all the events one after the other and ask yourself how they were related to the observed phenomenon: Was there no connection, a correlation, a favorable factor or even a possible cause? This is the most important analysis step, in which other techniques - such as the 5 Whys method - can also be integrated.

Example: As part of your analysis, you noticed that there was no connection at all between the sales success and the new sales presentation. On the other hand, you classified the fact that it was the last day of the quarter as a favorable factor. Another factor was even recognized as the most likely cause: The sales manager for the Berlin area has moved into a new apartment that is closer to the place of work. Therefore, in the last week of the quarter, she always arrived in the office 10 minutes earlier for customer meetings.

4. Fourth, it examines how the cause can be reproduced or remedied.

Example: Of course, not every employee can simply move. However, the company came to the conclusion that this success could perhaps be repeated if in the future all sales employees appear 10 minutes earlier for customer appointments in the last quarter of the year.

Herringbone diagram

Another frequently used technique is the fishbone diagram, also called Ishikawa or cause-and-effect diagram, with which causal relationships can be graphically represented. It can help identify the cause, as it encourages the user to feel their way along certain paths to potential causes until the root of the problem is determined. The technique is similar to the 5 Whys method, but more visual.

Usually the problem is in the middle, in a sense it forms the "backbone" of the herringbone diagram. Then different cause categories are assigned by brainstorming and shown as branches from the center line - these are the "bones". These categories are initially very general, for example “Personnel” or “Environment”, and are then subdivided in more detail. For example, the “Personnel” category could include potential causative factors such as “Personnel management”, “staffing” or “training”.

The further the possible causes and partial causes are ramified, the closer to the core of the matter. This method can be used to exclude categories unrelated to the problem as well as to identify correlating factors and probable causes. For the sake of simplicity, you should consider which categories are suitable before creating a herringbone diagram.

Common fishbone chart categories:

  • Machine (equipment, technology)
  • Method (process)
  • Material (including raw materials, consumables and information)
  • Work / mental strength (physical or mental work)
  • Measurement (inspection)
  • Task (purpose, expectations)
  • Management / financial control (leadership)
  • maintenance
  • Product or service)
  • price
  • Advertising (marketing)
  • Process (systems)
  • staff
  • Physical receipts
  • power
  • Environment (place, environment)
  • Delivery
  • Skills

Tips for performing an effective root cause analysis