Root cause analysis: Digging to find effective solutions (with examples)

Asana 팀 참여자 이미지Team Asana2022년 3월 25일
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Summary

Root cause analysis (RCA) finds the root causes of a problem and helps you identify and implement solutions. Instead of treating surface-level symptoms of a problem, RCA digs deeper and finds the underlying issues. By taking the time to analyze the real reason why a problem is occurring, you can solve the problem for good instead of opting for a quick fix. In this piece, you’ll learn how RCA can be the key to corrective action.

“Let’s get to the root of the problem” is an idiom people commonly use when looking for solutions. This idiom can be visualized in the form of tree roots below the surface. Tree roots aren’t visible, but their growth is obvious above ground. Sometimes this growth is positive and results in a beautiful tree, and sometimes it’s negative—damaging sidewalks and foundations. 

You may not initially understand why some problems occur, which is why understanding the root cause is so important. An RCA can help you make sense of what’s in front of you—and find effective solutions. In this piece, we’ll discuss how to perform a root cause analysis and provide problem-solving strategies for process improvement. 

What is root cause analysis?

A root cause analysis (RCA) involves finding the root causes of a problem in order to identify and implement solutions. RCA treats the underlying causes of a problem instead of the surface-level symptoms of the problem itself. 

For example, if your company is suffering from a low retention rate, hiring more team members is a quick solution. But with RCA, you can instead discover why team members aren’t staying with the company so you can increase retention long term. Root causes of low retention rate could include:

  • Lack of professional development opportunities

  • Poor team member benefits

  • Low pay compared to market range

  • Low team morale

After considering possible root causes, you can use research to determine one or multiple root causes. Once you understand those root causes, it’s easy to implement a solution. RCA addresses problems systematically instead of placing a bandaid over problems and taking the risk that the problem will occur again. 

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Key principles of RCA

Root cause analysis can resolve recurring project issues or larger bottlenecks within business processes. If you want to reap the unique benefits of this method, keep these key principles of RCA in mind:

  • Instead of correcting the symptoms of a problem, focus on its root causes.

  • Focus less on who caused the problem and more on how and why the problem occurred.

  • Find cause-and-effect evidence to support the root causes you’ve identified.

  • Develop an informative action plan to support your solutions.

  • Consider how you can prevent root causes from reoccurring in the future.

Remember that you can have multiple root causes for a problem, and it’s not out of the ordinary for this to happen. End with the root causes you feel are most accurate and be prepared to tackle them with strong solutions. 

How to perform a root cause analysis

There are various strategies you can use to identify root causes in RCA. Use the steps below to guide your team through the RCA process. 

[inline illustration] Root cause analysis (RCA) step by step (infographic)

1. Define the problem

You’ll need a clearly defined problem to perform a root cause analysis. If you have multiple problems you want to solve, it’s best to start with one and perform multiple RCAs to find solutions for each. By tackling one problem at a time, you’ll have a better chance of finding the cause of each issue and addressing it quickly.

Defining your problem also involves getting everyone on the same page. For example, you may want to perform RCA because you think your team is suffering from low productivity. But if your team doesn’t feel like their productivity is low, then you can’t move forward. Because productivity is subjective, you may need to define your problem in a more measurable way and move on to step two where you’ll use evidence to learn more about the problem. 

2. Collect your data

You’ll now need to collect evidence to support that the problem exists. You can also use company research to better understand the symptoms of the problem. Questions you should ask during this step include:

  • How long has the problem existed?

  • Who is suffering because of this problem?

  • What is the short-term and long-term impact of this problem?

  • What are the key symptoms of this problem?

  • What evidence do we have to support that there’s a problem?

Once you know more about how this issue impacts your company and team members, you can brainstorm potential causes of the problem. 

3. Identify possible root causes

Identifying possible root causes is the most important part of the root cause analysis process. The causes you find in this step will eventually lead you toward a solution and action plan. Common problem-solving strategies include:

  • Cause-and-effect flow chart: The free root cause analysis template provided below features a cause-and-effect flowchart. This flowchart breaks down the problem into symptoms, possible causes, and actual causes in order to find a logical solution. 

  • 5 whys approach: You can also use the 5 whys approach to get to the root cause of a problem. Instead of taking the problem at face-value, ask "why" until you uncover a process or system that isn't working the way it's supposed to. When you don’t settle for the first answer you land on, you can discover layers of issues that weren’t noticeable right away. 

[inline illustration] 5 whys analysis (example)
Read: How to use problem framing to solve team inefficiencies

4. Determine the root cause

To determine the root cause of your problem, you’ll go through as many possible root causes as you can. Once you’ve exhausted every possibility, ask the following questions:

  • Are there any similarities between the root causes I’ve identified?

  • Are there reasons to eliminate any of these possible root causes?

  • Which root cause seems most problematic?

Similar to the strategies you used when looking for possible root causes, there are strategies you can use to get to the actual root cause. These strategies include:

  • Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA): FMEA is a tool similar to risk analysis where you’ll look at the possible root causes you’ve identified and eliminate the ones that are most likely to result in failure later on. 

  • Impact analysis: Use an impact analysis to assess the positive and negative impacts of each possible root cause you’ve identified. When you make this hypothetical pro and cons list for each cause, you can feel more confident narrowing down your list.

You may struggle to identify a singular root cause of your problem, and that’s okay. If you think your problem has multiple contributing factors, don’t feel pressured to choose just one to solve. It’s nice to streamline your action plan, but sometimes you’ll need to create multiple plans to address an issue.

5. Implement solutions

Once you’re confident in the root causes you’ve identified, it’s time to find solutions for these causes and take action. The solutions you come up with should address the root cause, but as a result, these solutions will work their way back up the chain and address your initial problem. 

Ask yourself these questions when developing solutions:

  • How will we implement this solution if we choose it?

  • What roadblocks will we face when implementing this solution?

  • How long will it take to implement this solution?

  • Who will implement this solution?

  • Could implementing this solution lead to other problems?

Once you’re ready to create your implementation plan, make sure it’s shared in a tool that all stakeholders can view. Project management software makes it easy for your team to collaborate and coordinate deliverables as needed. It may take several weeks to implement your plan, which means some of your objectives may become dependent on other milestones. Use Gantt charts to view project dependencies and collaborate in real-time.

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Root cause analysis template and example

An RCA template makes performing root cause analysis simpler because you can visualize your problem and its underlying causes in flowchart form. Just like the roots of a tree, this cause-and-effect flow chart expands in different directions from the initial problem. 

If you follow the root cause analysis example below, you’ll see how the template begins with one problem then breaks down into the symptoms the problem displays. From the symptoms, the root cause analysis template helps you determine possible root causes before settling on actual root causes and finding solutions. 

In the example, the company is suffering from a loss of website views. The root cause analysis flows as follows:

Problem:

  • Website views are down

Symptoms:

  • Reduction in brand visibility

  • Lack of online purchases

  • Low domain authority

Possible root causes:

  • Technical issues with our website

  • Competitor ranking higher in SERPs

  • Weak CTAs

  • Customers don’t like our product

  • Customers can’t find our website to make purchases

  • Poor quality content

  • Irrelevant backlinks

Actual root causes:

  • Lack of SEO content

  • Website isn’t ranking in the SERPs

  • Lack of relevant keywords

Solution:

  • Revamp content

[inline illustration] root cause analysis (example)

You can download a free root cause analysis template below and use it to identify possible causes and solutions for problems you’re experiencing at work. An RCA template can help you address underlying issues that may not have been obvious at first.

Free root cause analysis template

Turn solutions into action with workflows

RCA doesn’t come with instant results, but getting to the root cause of a problem solves it for good. After coming up with an effective solution, you’ll need to put a plan into action. Asana workflows provide a single source of truth to set goals, monitor progress, and watch your problems fade in real-time.

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