Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is by its very nature a reactive process. Something goes amiss, and an organization conducts RCA in order to identify what went wrong and why, as well as to determine how to fix it and keep it from happening again. The RCA is a reaction to the something that went amiss.

So, it’s natural that many companies conduct an RCA only when something catastrophic has happened – like an employee injury or an asset failure that results in the loss of production. It’s easy for businesses to get stuck in a “firefighting” mode, using the RCA tool as a sort of one-and-done quick fix to whatever the issue-du-jour may be.

But some organizations are beginning to see RCA as a preventive resource, too. Rather than waiting for disaster to strike, they use the process and combine it with other tools – like Reliability Centered Maintenance – to identify potential issues before they happen, and put measures in place to mitigate and manage the risks of injury, failure, or other negative event.

At its core, Root Cause Analysis involves pinpointing the root cause of problems in order to find the best solutions for them. It spotlights the importance of taking corrective and preventive actions at that root, rather than just treating the “symptoms” of the issue, and tries to go beyond the surface-level cause-and-effect of the situation to discover how deeper systems might have contributed.

Benefits of RCA include:

  • Solving real-world problems – correct RCA processes often solve common business problems;
  • Reducing costs – by lowering the likelihood of such problems turning into significant incidents, RCA saves valuable time and money;
  • Enhancing safety – RCA efficiently investigates safety-related incidents and helps put solutions into place to stop similar happenings down the line;
  • Facilitating long-lasting solutions – RCA’s focus on long-term correction and prevention helps organizations become more productive and effective.

So, reactivity is what RCA was created for; the top objective of almost all RCA investigations is to come up with corrective actions that will stop a specific problem from happening again. But, if you watch for them, there are opportunities where you can practice proactivity – discovering solutions you can use to prevent problems that haven’t yet occurred.

A Potential Cause

A negative event occurs, and you’re conducting an RCA. As you brainstorm possible causes, you identify a cause you believe is the culprit (Cause A), and come up with corrective actions for it. But, as you continue your investigation and collect further evidence, it becomes clear that Cause A didn’t happen. It’s still a potential cause of a similar negative event – if Cause A happens, then it would cause the same sort of event – but it hasn’t happened yet.

So your evidence leads you to the actual cause of the event that occurred (Cause B), and you come up with corrective actions for it. When you put actions into place to address both Cause A and Cause B, you’re not only correcting Cause B, but also proactively preventing Cause A from ever happening.

An Unidentified Cause

A negative event occurs, and you’re performing an RCA. You brainstorm possible causes and come up with a handful capable of causing the event, but regardless of the process and the evidence, you’re simply unable to pinpoint which cause is at fault. So, you must put actions into place to address all of the potential causes; again, you’re not only correcting the real root cause, but also proactively preventing the other potential causes from ever occurring.

A Leverage-able Cause

A negative event happens, you conduct an RCA, identify the cause, and come up with a solution. You realize this solution can also be used with other similar systems, so you implement it in all of those areas in order to proactively protect them from a similar event.

A Positive Event

A positive event occurs, so you perform an RCA to try to identify what happened correctly to cause the positive outcome, so you can guarantee a positive outcome every time this event happens.

For example, one organization I worked for had a contentious relationship between the capital projects team and the operations teams (production and maintenance). The operations team felt that the project team did not handover projects in a state where they were ready to be operated. The project team felt that the operations team wanted everything gold-plated.  The result was that the projects had trouble through commissioning and at least initial operation. The projects did not meet the business goals or the project goals of budget and schedule.

A mid-range project (below $10MM), however, went quite smoothly through commissioning and even upon start-up met the business goal, the budget goal and beat the schedule goal. It was obviously a result that everyone wanted to be able to repeat so the organization decided to do an RCA to figure out what was done right.

Conducted with all stakeholders, including Projects, Operations and the Business team, key causes for what led the success of the project were identified and ‘solutions’ for what they made possible were developed. New SOPs on Projects/Operations interactions and Reliability in Design were developed and implemented at least on mid-range projects and above. The proactive actions were identified from a positive event, and systems were put in place to ensure all future projects had a greater probability of success.

Switching your thinking on RCA being solely reactive doesn’t necessarily imply a better way of conducting the RCA, instead, it’s more about just looking at something beyond how you normally would. RCA can become a proactive tool when you let your mind be free enough to explore solutions beyond the one(s) that caused a problem. Yes, you’ll come up with corrective actions, but also with proactive solutions that are going to keep the problem, or related but not yet realized problems, from happening other ways, too.

Become a skilled RCA Facilitator

Hands-on RCA training will help develop your problem-solving skills and teach you the principles you need to confidently lead a Root Cause Analysis.

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