Root Cause Analysis Tools & Templates for 2021

Root Cause Analysis tools & templates

There are two basic ways of dealing with issues:

  1. We can react quickly when an issue occurs so that it will not stop or delay the normal flow of events. The goal is to provide a speedy fix to normalize the situation as soon as possible.
  2. Another way is to perform a thorough investigation after an issue has occurred. We try to get as much information as we can, analyze it, and come up with solutions that would prevent the issue from recurring. The goal is to arrive at an accurate and precise understanding of the issue, not so much on how fast we can apply a solution, but to implement an exact, long-term fix.

The first problem solving technique deals with the visible symptoms of an issue, while the second employs root cause analysis to fully understand the issue in order to solve it.

Table of contents

Root cause analysis

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Root cause analysis (RCA) is a problem-solving method used in proactive management. When issues and problems occur, the main, fundamental, underlying, deepest or root cause of the problem does not present itself most of the time. What is more visible is its manifested symptoms and causal factors. Although finding a solution that addresses symptoms can be quicker, it will almost always not solve the problem, because a quick fix does not address the initiating cause.

Example of symptoms vs. root cause

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A manager notices a puddle of water on the floor of a factory and attempts to address the identified safety hazard. He asks the supervisor to have a maintenance personnel get a mop and clean the puddle. The manager makes a note of ordering more mops for the factory.

The supervisor, however, is curious about the puddle, which was not there the day before. She investigates and discovers that the puddle came from a leak in one of the factory pipes. She discovers that the pipe leaks because the water pressure in the pipe is too high. The high water pressure comes from a faulty pressure valve. Her investigation stopped there because she could not get more information, and she recommended a valve replacement. This normalized the water pressure that the pipes handled well, preventing any water to leak and create a puddle on the floor.

While the manager addressed the symptoms of the issue, his quick fix meant that the puddle would return in the future, and the company would eventually spend unnecessary money purchasing mops routinely. The supervisor’s deeper investigation meant that the company permanently fixed the problem for the price of a new valve.

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Best root cause analysis tools

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There are several root cause analysis tools with a variety of field applications such as systems analysis, IT, telecommunications, manufacturing, health, and medicine. Some RCA tools are useful for simple problems while others are ideal for more complex and layered problems. Here are a few of them:

5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a simple tool where you ask the question ‘why is the problem happening’ or similar variations as many times as possible until you can no longer answer it. You are not limited to asking up to five times—it may be fewer or more until you arrive at the level where you cannot come up with answers anymore, just like the water puddle example above. It does not guarantee you find the root cause, but is an effective analysis tool to go beyond symptoms. A good strategy is to use a Pareto chart first, which will help you focus on the 20 percent of defects that usually cause 80 percent of the problems. A 5 Whys root cause analysis template will aid in defining the problem statement and in examining the clarity of the answers to the whys.

5 whys template

Is/Is Not Analysis

Another simple RCA tool is the Is/Is Not analysis. It is a good tool to help you focus on the probable root causes. You first state the problem or the situation. Using a table, create one column for questions, another column labeled ‘Is’, and a third column labeled ‘Is Not’. On the first column, write questions like what, where, or when, and provide answers for the Is and Is Not columns. For example, using our water puddle example, we can answer that the puddle Is water, and Is Not oil. The puddle Is on the factory floor, and Is Not on the conveyor. These answers narrow down the source and location. It is a tool that eliminates non-related, untrue causes, so you can focus on the right ones.

Is/Is Not analysis template

Failure Mode and Effect Analysis

This process analysis tool is ideal for analyzing the design, manufacture, or assembly of systems with known components. On a spreadsheet, list all components, parts, or steps and describe how that component may fail. It can be an error or a defect, potential or actual. For every failure mode, describe also the consequences or effect. It is a systematic structured approach that allows you to anticipate what can go wrong and its impact to the whole system, product, or process. It is also useful in reverse when an effect occurs so you can narrow down the specific causes or failed components. You can create a FMEA root cause analysis template using any spreadsheet software.

FMEA template

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Affinity Diagram

The affinity diagram or KJ method is an organization tool best used after brainstorming. When you have a large number of ideas after a brainstorming session, you need to narrow them down and group them together to prevent duplication and redundancy. To build the diagram, you first have to record all the ideas into separate cards or notes. Next, the team should look for related ideas and group them together. Sort all cards so that they all belong to a group. The benefit of the process is that you become very familiar with the data to know which ones belong to a specific group. The affinity diagram can serve as an input to a fishbone diagram. What is important in creating the diagram’s template is to identify clearly all the important groups or sections involved.

Affinity diagram template

Fishbone diagram

A fishbone diagram or cause-and-effect diagram is ideal for complicated problems. It takes into account multiple categories of causes that created the effect or problem. Root cause analysis does not limit to the identification of a single root cause. It is possible that several root causes are present. In a fishbone diagram, list all categories such as people, environment, machines, materials, and methods. As the team brainstorms why the problem happened, list the answers under one or several categories to be the probable cause. Similar to an affinity diagram, the root cause analysis template for a fishbone diagram should cover all categories identified with the problem. Teams can use the 5 Whys to arrive the lowest level they are aware of.

Fishbone diagram template

Root cause analysis challenges

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Root cause analysis is an effective process but only as effective as the effort given to find the answers. Some of the challenges include:

  • Writing accurate and descriptive problem statements
  • Getting enough supporting data
  • Presence of multiple root causes
  • Not having enough perspective

In problem solving, more heads are usually better than one, so a team effort goes a long way. It is sometimes easier to make assumptions when data is not available, but this can be risky. Using additional tools such as fault tree analysis or scatter plots can help you get a more accurate understanding. RCA software can improve organization, document management, and collaboration. These can range from a simple spreadsheet or specialized applications that include additional features. But in the end, root cause analysis should pave the way for a well-planned and well-executed corrective action.

Jose Maria Delos Santos

Jose is a subject matter expert and member of the writing team for Project-Management.com and Bridge24. He has written hundreds of articles including project management software reviews, books reviews, training site reviews, and general articles related to the project management industry.

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