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

Retrato de contribuidores da equipe AsanaTeam Asana
17 de janeiro de 2024
10 minutos de leitura
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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. Conducting an RCA with tools like the fishbone diagram and the five whys method can clarify complex issues, leading to effective and sustainable 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. 

Free root cause analysis template

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 data

You’ll now need to collect evidence to support the idea 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 the idea 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.

Leia: Quais são as vantagens da gestão de projetos?Free root cause analysis template

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 and 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 this 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.

Root-cause analysis tools and methods

Root cause analysis stands as a cornerstone in continuous improvement and risk management efforts. It offers a systematic process to unearth the real root causes of problems or incidents. 

By going beyond symptoms, root cause analysis tools empower RCA teams to delve into the deeper, underlying causes of issues. This deep dive doesn't just lead to temporary fixes; it leads to more effective, long-term resolutions—transforming challenges into opportunities for lasting improvement.

Pareto charts

Pareto analysis, based on the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80-20 rule), is a decision-making technique that helps in identifying the tasks or problem areas with the biggest payoffs. Pareto analysis is particularly effective when there are multiple causes leading to a single effect. This method is widely applied in various business and organizational sectors, helping to prioritize actions that have the greatest impact.

5 Whys

The 5 Whys method is an iterative interrogative method used to analyze the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a specific problem. It involves repeatedly asking the question "Why?" to peel away layers of symptoms, leading to the real root cause of a problem. The Five Whys technique is widely used in lean methodologies to solve problems, reduce costs, and improve quality.

Ishikawa fishbone diagram

The fishbone diagram, also known as the Ishikawa diagram, is a visual way to look at cause and effect. It helps in brainstorming to detect potential root causes of a problem and is used for product design and quality management. The Ishikawa diagram displays the effect or problem at the mouth of the fish, with potential causes added to the smaller "bones."

Fault tree analysis

Fault tree analysis is a graphical tool that uses Boolean logic—in which the answers to every question are "yes" or “no"—to determine the cause of system-level failures. It's suitable for risk assessment in industries like pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and software engineering. The tool arranges events in sequences and uses logic symbols to show dependencies among events.

Failure Mode and Effective Analysis (FMEA)

FMEA involves reviewing components, subsystems, and assemblies to find weak links in a system and their causes and effects. Developed in the late 1950s, it is both a quantitative and qualitative analysis method used in designing products, processes, or services and for creating control plans for new or modified processes.

Scatter diagram

The scatter diagram is a graphical tool that plots pairs of numerical data, with one variable on each axis, to examine the relationship between them. When variables are correlated, the points will align along a line or curve. How closely the points cluster around the line indicates the strength of the correlation. This root cause analysis tool is regarded as one of the seven basic quality tools and is essential in determining the relationships between different variables in root cause analysis.

DMAIC template

DMAIC, standing for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control, is a structured approach used in Six Sigma to optimize processes. It provides quantifiable evidence of improvements and is a repeatable and easy-to-understand method for detecting issues and developing solutions. This template is excellent for project managers and RCA teams.

8D report template checklist

The 8D report template is used for detailed root-cause analysis based on eight disciplines of problem-solving. It's widely used in industries influenced by customer feedback, such as automotive and healthcare. The template helps in identifying and eradicating the problem, focusing on the "escape point," which represents the point when the issue first went undetected.

Events and causal factor analysis

Events and causal factor analysis identifies the sequence of events and the causal factors that led to an issue or problem. This analysis focuses on understanding the chronological order of events and the specific conditions or actions that contributed to the problem. A cause-and-effect diagram is particularly useful in complex situations where multiple factors interact to cause an issue. 

Change analysis

Change analysis is a key component of effective root cause analysis, particularly in quality management and continuous improvement efforts. This method involves examining and comparing the situation or system before and after the occurrence of a problem. 

By identifying what changed, you can isolate causal factors more accurately. Change analysis is valuable in scenarios where the issue emerged following alterations in processes, materials, personnel, or equipment, helping to pinpoint the real root cause of the problem swiftly.

Barrier analysis

Barrier analysis is a problem-solving process that examines the controls and barriers that were in place to prevent an incident and why those safety checks failed. By analyzing the breakdown or absence of these barriers, root cause analysis teams can identify human error, system flaws, and other potential root causes. Barrier analysis contributes to the development of more robust systems and processes, preventing future occurrences of similar issues.

Free root cause analysis template

Tips for conducting an effective root cause analysis

Have you ever wondered how to not only solve problems but also prevent them from recurring? Root cause analysis methods are the key. These methods go into the heart of issues, address their underlying causes, and pave the way for lasting improvements. 

This approach doesn't just offer a temporary fix; it ensures the same problems don’t resurface, fostering continuous improvements in processes and outcomes.

Encourage team collaboration

Promoting team collaboration can significantly enhance the effectiveness of root cause analysis. Diverse perspectives and expertise contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the issue and the development of effective solutions.

Example: Consider a manufacturing company facing frequent equipment breakdowns. By forming a cross-functional RCA team with members from engineering, maintenance, and operations, they can pool their insights to identify the root cause. 

An engineer may pinpoint a design flaw, while a maintenance worker could identify wear and tear issues, and an operator might highlight operational errors. This collaborative approach leads to a comprehensive problem statement that results in a multifaceted and effective solution.

Ask open-ended questions

Open-ended questions are key in root-cause analysis. Asking questions encourages a detailed exploration of the issue, allowing team members to consider various possibilities and delve deeper into the underlying causes.

Example: In a healthcare setting, if there's a rise in patient readmissions, asking open-ended questions like "What are the common factors among these readmissions?" or "How do our discharge processes vary for patients who are readmitted?" can reveal deeper issues. 

These questions could uncover that certain discharge procedures aren't being followed consistently, leading to the root cause of inadequate patient education at discharge.

Avoid blame

An essential aspect of successful root cause analysis is focusing on the process and not on individual blame. Concentrating on the "why" and "how" of the problem rather than "who" was responsible creates an environment conducive to genuine problem-solving and improvement.

Example: In a software development team experiencing frequent project delays, focusing on the process rather than blaming individuals can be more productive. By analyzing the “why” and “how,” such as asking, "Why are these delays happening?" or "How can we optimize our project management strategies?" they might discover that the root cause is not individual incompetence but an unrealistic timeline or unclear communication channels. 

This shift from blame to process-oriented thinking helps create a more effective and harmonious problem-solving environment.

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.

Free root cause analysis template