What is root cause analysis?
Root cause analysis is an approach to get to the underlying ‘root cause’ of the problem – tracing the issue back to the original source of the issue. Rather than treating the immediate apparent cause (the most visible issue that is visible on the surface), root cause analysis seeks to treat the problem.
What is wrong with just treating the surface-problem
Many problems often have multiple stages of failure associated with them. By focusing on the final stage – potentially a quality control stage that missed a defect – you may be able to address a single point of the problem. But this ignores the multiple other stages that also contributed to the problem. Root cause analysis seeks to go back in the sequence of events and identify other failings that also led to the issues happening
Why treating the root cause is important
While treating the immediate surface-level issue may be more of a band-aid to the problem – a ‘fix’ that tries to catch the issue at the last stage – treating the root of the problem seeks to stop it from happening in the first stage.
Treating the underlying issue often has the advantage that it not only solves the individual problem that you have identified, but also a whole set of other related issues that have the same underlying cause. Rather than playing ‘whack-a-mole’ where you seek to address problems in fire-fighting mode, addressing the underlying cause may prevent other related issues from occurring.
Final thoughts: Consider opportunities for learnings at all stages
When conducting root cause analysis – and tracing a problem back to its original sources – you may discover multiple stages of weaknesses. Several things may have gone wrong to have lead to the problem that you faced. While treating the original source may be important, there may also be learnings that you can apply throughout the sequence of events that you uncover.
If you are interested in applying root cause analysis, consider the 5-whys analysis – a simple approach for identifying underlying issues.