What is Root Cause Analysis (RCA)?

By Anvesha Jain 27-Jul-2022
What is Root Cause Analysis (RCA)?

Challenges are a fundamental part of every organisation. In every industry, there is a different way to find a solution. But there is one common mistake that many people tend to make. As soon as new issues or policies are communicated along the chain of command, they rush to fix the problem and find a solution. Instead, they should be analysing whether the problem is at the surface level or has a deeper root cause.

When you rush to find a solution, you mostly hit upon very surface-level problems and solutions. This may cause temporary relief but cannot be considered a long-term solution. These solutions require resources and time and often expensive hardware and software tools. Given that you’re aiming to solve a long-term problem with an expensive, short-term solution, your organisation will end up wasting valuable time and assets.

However, if you conduct a deeper root cause analysis you can make the problem go away for good.

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What is Root Cause Analysis?

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a popular technique that is regularly used by organisations. When a problem occurs, the first thought managers often get is what can I do to fix it. However, what they should be asking is why did this problem occur in the first place.

Root cause analysis is a systematic procedure that seeks to identify the origin of a problem using a set of steps that have proved successful in the past. It uses associated tools to help you identify the primary cause of a problem This ensures that you can

  • Determine the exact problem you want to address
  • Know exactly why it happened
  • Have a plan in place in case the situation takes place again.

What Causes a Problem?

Root cause analysis works with the estimation that systems and events are all interlinked. This means that one seemingly unrelated event can trigger an action in a completely different field. It is quite similar to the butterfly effect, but not always at too large a scale. If you trace your actions back, you will be able to see where the problem started and how it grew to exhibit the symptoms you see.

There are three main types of causes you will find. These are:

  1. Physical causes: These are tangible, material items that visibly malfunction. An example of this would be the failure of a car’s brakes or breakdown of a computer or other hardware.
  2. Human causes: This refers to people doing something wrong despite the correct process being in place. For example, if someone forgets to fill the brake fluid it could cause the car brakes to fail. Or if someone spills liquids onto the computer by accident, it might malfunction.
  3. Organisational causes: This is a faulty system, policy or process that work is based on. If the entire process is faulty, the problem won’t go away by simply firing the person. For example, if no dedicated resource is assigned to fill brake fluid, everyone will assume someone else has done it. Or if the ‘no liquids within the cubicle’ rule is not implemented, chances are multiple spills will take place over time.

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How to Conduct Root Cause Analysis

RCA has five distinct steps you must follow.

1. Define the Problem

The first step is the most important. The conclusion that you will ultimately arrive at will depend on your ability to identify the problem itself. To do this, ask yourself a few questions. What is the exact situation that you see taking place around you? Look for specific symptoms that you can identify.

If you don’t pinpoint the problem, you won’t be able to complete the root cause analysis. If you are the sole decision maker, you need to be sure you have correctly defined the problem. If there are multiple stakeholders, all of them need to reach a consensus before moving towards the next step.

2. Collect relevant data

After identifying the problem, the next step is collecting relevant data. The symptoms might be great or small, but the scale of the effects can only be determined after you have the necessary data.

There are a few relevant questions you can ask as you start collecting data. What proof do you have that the problem exists? How long has this problem been there? What is the impact of this problem? How many people are affected by this problem?

To get enough information, you need to account for all the factors that contribute to the problem. Don’t think of solutions at this point, only identify as many causes and factors as possible which could lead to the problem. Involve as many team members and other stakeholders as necessary.

3. Prioritise the causes

Once you have enough possible causes and data that could have caused your problem, break them down. Don’t try to tackle all the problems in one go. List all of the causes in increasing likelihood and try to identify the sequence of events.

The questions to ask in this phase are pretty analytical. Which sequence of events is most likely to lead to the problem? What conditions are needed for the problem to occur? Are there any other minor or major problems surrounding the main problem?

There are many ways that you can identify causal factors. One way to do this is through appreciation. State the fact and then say ‘So what?’ to determine consequences of the said fact You can also keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the root of the problem.

4. Identify and implement changes

Once you identify the most likely cause of the problem, finding the solution is often easy. Focus on finding a solution that will eliminate the problem altogether so that it does not come up again. Make sure you have an implementation strategy in place. This means all the roles and responsibilities are clearly assigned so that people know what they have to do.

One important question to ask while implementing changes and solutions is, are there any challenges to the solution. Often implementing a solution can solve the problem at hand, but it might just create a new one. For example, if you implement a rule saying no liquids allowed within office cubicles, it might stop hardware malfunctions due to spilling. However, this might mean employees take more water or tea breaks than usual, which might hamper their focus and productivity in the long run. So make sure you are prepared for all additional problems that might come up.

5. Monitor and sustain the implementation

Great managers know that implementation is never the last step. Make sure you monitor, record and analyse the results of your implemented solution. You need to be aware of all the consequences of your solution and prepare for any new challenges. You should also ensure that the original problem does not return.

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Root Cause Analysis Methods

Different organisations use different tools and methods to carry out their root cause analysis. Let’s understand the four most important methods.

Why analysis:

In very simple terms, this method requires asking ‘why’ five times. This method will help you arrive at the root cause of your problem. For example, consider that an employee got caught speeding. Why? Because they were late to work. Why? Because their alarm didn’t go off. Why? Because the batteries were not working. Why? Because they forgot to replace it.

This means an employee’s problem of speeding can be solved by using an alarm clock that does not require batteries. A why analysis can easily help eliminate the root cause of your problem.

Fishbone diagram:

This method is also called the Ishikawa diagram, named after Dr Kaoru Ishikawa. There are a few steps to implementing this method. It is implemented during the second step of the root cause analysis method.

While using this method, use the 6 M’s

  • Man - people involved in the brainstorming
  • Machine - equipment used
  • Method - procedures followed
  • Material - inputs required within the process
  • Measurement - data on this input
  • Mother nature - the working environment for the people and tools used

While looking for all possible causes of a problem, the 6 M’s will help you segregate them in a way that helps you understand. When you draw them out on paper, they look like a fishbone, hence the name. Other variations of this method use different numbers and categories to classify the factors.

Pareto analysis:

The Pareto analysis is based on the principle that ‘80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, ‘20% of the work gives 80% of the results’, also called the 80/20 rule. While determining possible causes of a problem, this method is highly effective as it is backed by data.

To carry out this method, first assign a time period that you aim to observe. Calculate exact occurrences for each category of causes. Then, convert the resulting numbers into percentages and arrange them from the greatest to the smallest. Once you know the major causes, finding a solution becomes easier.


This is something you might be familiar with. Brainstorming requires getting all concerned team members into a room and reviewing the problem at hand. Collect opinions backed by facts, prioritise causes, and then shortlist solutions via a consensus. From there, you will need to determine the next steps and assign job roles accordingly.


A root cause analysis is one of the many tools that successful project managers and business leaders use to solve problems. Being a project manager requires sharp problem-solving skills and you can hone yours with a PMP certification training course with Koenig Solutions. Start training and become the best version of your professional self today.

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Anvesha Jain

Anvesha Jain has a great variety of knowledge in the education industry with more than 3 years of experience. He has also done work with many educational institutes as a Career counsellor. He also likes to write blogs on different topics like education and career guidance