Sarah K. White
Senior Writer

What is root cause analysis? A proactive approach to change management

May 06, 20227 mins
Change ManagementProcess ImprovementProject Management

Root cause analysis (RCA) focuses on fostering a proactive approach to solving problems before they happen and eliminating the potential for flaws to reoccur in the future.

Tree roots
Credit: Shutterstock / siambizkit

Root cause analysis definition

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving process that focuses on identifying the root cause of issues or errors with the goal of preventing them from reoccurring in the future. RCA is typically part of service management methodologies and frameworks, such as ITIL, TQM, and Kanban, that focus on continuous process improvement. This type of analysis can help identify flaws in IT processes, potential security breaches, and faults in business processes.

When a problem is identified and removed, it is considered a “root cause” if it prevents the problem from reoccurring. If, however, a problem is removed and it impacts the event’s outcome, but not in the way intended, then it is a “causal factor.” RCA is typically used to find the root cause of software or infrastructure problems to improve the quality and efficiency of processes, and thereby to save time and money. Every potential cause in a given process is identified and analyzed to ensure the organization is treating the disease, rather than just the symptoms.

Reactive vs. proactive problem management

Reactive management and proactive management are the two main approaches organizations take to repairing issues and solving problems. With reactive management, problems are fixed soon after they occur, often called “putting out fires.” The goal is to act quickly to resolve issues and alleviate any effects of a problem as soon as possible.

Proactive management, on the other hand, aims to prevent problems from reoccurring. It is focused less on quickly solving problems and instead on analyzing them to find ways to prevent them from happening again. That’s where root cause analysis comes in. Its methodology is best suited to support proactive problem management’s goal of identifying and fixing underlying issues, rather than just reacting to problems as they happen.

Root cause analysis steps

While there’s no strict rulebook on how to conduct a root cause analysis, certain guidelines can help ensure your root cause analysis process is effective. The four main steps that most professionals agree are essential for RCA to be successful include the following:

  • Identification and description: Organizations must first identify the failures, errors, or events that triggered the problem in question and then establish event descriptions to explain what happened.
  • Chronology: After identifying these issues, organizations must then create a sequential timeline of events to better visualize the root cause and any contributing causal factors. Here, it’s important to establish the nature of the event, the impact it had, and where and when the problem occurred.
  • Differentiation: Once the sequence of events is established, data involved with a particular issue can be matched to historical data from past analysis to identify the root cause, causal factors, and non-causal factors.
  • Causal graphing: Those investigating the problem should be able to establish key events that explain how the problem occurred and convert that data into a causal graph.

Root cause analysis takes a systematic approach to identifying problems and requires the effort of full teams to properly perform the analysis. Those tasked with the analysis typically work backwards to determine what happened, why it happened, and how to reduce the chances of it happening again. They can trace triggered actions to find the root cause that started the chain reaction of errors in a process to remedy it. These steps help guide the process and give organizations a framework for how to successfully complete a root cause analysis.

Root cause analysis methods

RCA is already baked into several IT frameworks and methodologies as a step for change, problem, or risk management. It’s been established as a proven, effective way to support continuous process and quality improvement. But if you are conducting a root cause analysis outside of a separate process management framework, organizations typically employ the following methods to ensure a successful RCA:

  • Form a team to conduct the RCA and evaluate processes and procedures in the organization that have flaws. This team should be built by bringing together employees who work in relevant business areas or who work directly with the broken processes.
  • Once the analysis begins, it can take upwards of two months to complete. Each step of the process is given equal weight whether it’s defining and understanding the problem, identifying possible causes, analyzing the effects of the problem, or determining potential solutions.
  • Teams should meet at least once per week, if not more often, with meetings being kept to no longer than two hours with a loose agenda. The meetings are intended to be relatively creative, so you want to avoid bogging people down with too much structure.
  • Team members should be assigned specific roles or tasks so everyone has a clear understanding of what they should be investigating.
  • Upon finding a potential solution, it’s crucial to follow up to make sure that the solution is effective and that it’s implemented successfully.

Root cause analysis tools

You don’t need much to conduct a root cause analysis, but there are several tools that are helpful and commonly used to help make the process easier. Commonly used tools to perform an effective root cause analysis include:  

  • Fishbone diagrams: A fishbone diagram is mapped out in the shape of a fishbone, allowing you to group causes into sub-categories to be analyzed.
  • Failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA): FMEA is a technique that can be used to map out a system or process and identify the failures within it. It can be used not only to identify flaws but also to map out how often they happen, what actions have already been taken, and what actions have been effective in remedying the issue.
  • Pareto charts: A Pareto chart is a simple bar chart that maps out related events and problems in order of how often they occur. This helps identify which problems are more significant than others and where to focus process improvement efforts.
  • Scatter diagrams: A scatter diagram plots data on a chart with an x and y axis. This is another useful tool for mapping out problems to understand their impact and significance.
  • Fault tree analysis: A fault tree analysis uses Boolean logic to identify the cause of problems or flaws. They are mapped out on a diagram that looks like a tree, where every potential cause is included as its own “branch.”
  • 5 whys analysis: With 5 whys analysis, you will ask the question “why” five times too delve deeper into a problem to develop a clearer picture of its root cause.

Root cause analysis training

While RCA is a part of other frameworks and methodologies, there are training programs and courses designed to focus on helping people better understand how to perform the analysis. If you want to get more training on RCA, here are a handful of programs designed to help: