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Root cause analysis

24 Dec 2014

Root cause analysis is a collective term that describes a wide range of approaches, tools and techniques used to uncover causes of problems.

The root cause is the evil at the bottom that creates the entire cause-and-effect chain causing the problems.

The main incentive to perform root cause analysis is that if you just fix the symptoms the problem will almost certainly happen again, which will lead you to fix it again and again. If, instead, you look deeper to figure out why the problem is occurring, you can fix the underlying systems and/or processes that are causing the problem.

There are broadly three types of causes:

Mechanical In this type the main cause is some sort of physical failure, such as hard disk or network switch failure.

People Here the cause is a person and/or team who didn’t do something needed - or worse did something wrong. In some cases this type may result into mechanical failure. For example a hard disk fails because the IT service technician did not replace the hard drives when they reached end of life.

System/Process In this type the cause is either a system and/or process. In some cases this type may result in mechanical and/or people failure. Using the example above, if there was no process or policy defined by the IS department requiring that every three years hard disks need to be replaced, and that results in mechanical failure of the hard drives.

There are many techniques available to perform root cause analysis, one of the simplest ones is called ‘Five Whys’.

By repeatedly asking the question ‘why?' you can peel away the layers of an issue, just like the layers of an onion, helping you to identify the root cause of a given problem. 

The following steps can be used to apply this technique:

1. Gather all the subject matter experts and affected people in a room, write down the specific problem on the white board. Writing down the problem helps the team to focus on the same problem and describe it accurately. 

2. Ask everyone in the room “Why do you think this problem occurs?”  Then write the answer/s down below the problem.

3. If these answers don’t identify the source of the problem, ask ‘why?' again and write that answer down below the previous answer.

4. Loop back to step three (ask ‘why’?) until everyone agrees that they have identified the root cause of the problem. 

Sometimes it takes less five ‘whys’ to get to the root cause of the problem. Sometimes it takes more than five ‘whys’.

Also make sure you avoid any assumptions and keep focused on drilling down to the real root cause rather than the symptoms. One final note: the only way to solve a difficult problem is to resolve its root causes. 

Jayesh Jain works in information technology and services and was recently appointed as vice president, membership, for IIBA’s (International Institute of Business Analysts) New Zealand chapter.

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