What is Root Cause Analysis?

Legal Definition
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem solving used for identifying the root causes of faults or problems. A factor is considered a root cause if removal thereof from the problem-fault-sequence prevents the final undesirable event from recurring; whereas a causal factor is one that affects an event's outcome, but is not a root cause. Though removing a causal factor can benefit an outcome, it does not prevent its recurrence with certainty.

For example, imagine a fictional segment of students who received poor testing scores. After initial investigation, it was verified that students taking tests in the final period of the school day got lower scores. Further investigation revealed that late in the day, the students lacked ability to focus. Even further investigation revealed that the reason for the lack of focus was hunger. So, the root cause of the poor testing scores was hunger, remedied by moving the testing time to soon after lunch.

As another example, imagine an investigation into a machine that stopped because it overloaded and the fuse blew. Investigation shows that the machine overloaded because it had a bearing that wasn't being sufficiently lubricated. The investigation proceeds further and finds that the automatic lubrication mechanism had a pump which was not pumping sufficiently, hence the lack of lubrication. Investigation of the pump shows that it has a worn shaft. Investigation of why the shaft was worn discovers that there isn't an adequate mechanism to prevent metal scrap getting into the pump. This enabled scrap to get into the pump, and damage it. The root cause of the problem is therefore that metal scrap can contaminate the lubrication system. Fixing this problem ought to prevent the whole sequence of events recurring. Compare this with an investigation that does not find the root cause: replacing the fuse, the bearing, or the lubrication pump will probably allow the machine to go back into operation for a while. But there is a risk that the problem will simply recur, until the root cause is dealt with.

Following the introduction of Kepner–Tregoe analysis—which had limitations in the highly complex arena of rocket design, development and launch—RCA arose in the 1950s as a formal study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States. New methods of problem analysis developed by NASA included a high level assessment practice called MORT (Management Oversight Risk Tree). MORT differed from RCA by assigning causes to common classes of cause shortcomings that could be summarized into a short list. These included work practice, procedures, management, fatigue, time pressure, along with several others. For example: if an aircraft accident occurred as a result of adverse weather conditions augmented by pressure to leave on time; failure to observe weather precautions could indicate a management or training problem; and lack of appropriate weather concern might indict work practices. Because several measures (methods) may effectively address the root causes of a problem, RCA is an iterative process and a tool of continuous improvement.

RCA is applied to methodically identify and correct the root causes of events, rather than to simply address the symptomatic result. Focusing correction on root causes has the goal of entirely preventing problem recurrence. Conversely, RCFA (Root Cause Failure Analysis) recognizes that complete prevention of recurrence by one corrective action is not always possible.

RCA is typically used as a reactive method of identifying event(s) causes, revealing problems and solving them. Analysis is done after an event has occurred. Insights in RCA make it potentially useful as a preemptive method. In that event, RCA can be used to forecast or predict probable events even before they occur. While one follows the other, RCA is a completely separate process to incident management.

Rather than one sharply defined methodology, RCA comprises many different tools, processes, and philosophies. However, several very-broadly defined approaches or "schools" can be identified by their basic approach or field of origin: safety-based, production-based, assembly-based, process-based, failure-based, and systems-based.

  • Safety-based RCA arose from the fields of accident analysis and occupational safety and health.
  • Production-based RCA has roots in the field of quality control for industrial manufacturing.
  • Process-based RCA, a follow-on to production-based RCA, broadens the scope of RCA to include business processes.
  • Failure-based RCA originates in the practice of failure analysis as employed in engineering and maintenance.
  • Systems-based RCA has emerged as an amalgam of the preceding schools, incorporating elements from other fields such as change management, risk management and systems analysis.

Despite the different approaches among the various schools of root cause analysis, all share some common principles. Several general processes for performing RCA can also be defined.
-- Wikipedia
Legal Definition
The evaluation and identification of a cause for failure, problem or undesirable condition.