Root cause analysis is an important activity whenever a problem occurs - whether it is a defect, an operational outage, or something else. Whatever the problem, your objective should be to not only resolve the issue but also prevent it from reoccurring in the future. To do this, you need to determine the root cause - the key factor(s) that caused the problem to occur and that need to change in order to stop it from happening again.
Root cause analysis is essentially a learning exercise, and as such should be a fundamental practice if your objective is perpetual learning or continuous improvement. It disappoints me to so often see it done poorly or not at all. The good news is that the ability to do root cause analysis can be trained and improved.
At its essence, root cause analysis involves asking "Why?" coupled with the determination to find answers that will help permanently resolve or at least improve the situation being dealt with. To start, you simply ask "Why did the problem happen?". If the answer tells you how to fix the problem but not how to prevent it in the future, then you need to keep asking why. Even once you start getting more profound answers, you can often continue asking why questions and learn still more.
Asking why is easy - figuring out the answer is hard. Both analytical and creative thinking skills play a role. At times you may feel like a detective, ferreting out clues like Sherlock Holmes. When faced with a question concerning a situation with no apparent answer, I've found it helpful to brainstorm ideas for what possibly could have led to the situation, and from there try and determine whether each possibility could have occurred.
Root cause analysis is not for the faint-at-heart. Asking probing questions and searching for answers about why things went wrong can make you unpopular, especially if your investigation involves other teams and other managers. You need to be careful that your efforts are not perceived as laying blame or trying to score political points by making others look bad. Instead, emphasize that it is a learning exercise whose purpose is to prevent future occurrences of the problem.
Next week I'll present some real-life examples of root cause analysis that touch on the above points. But you don't have to wait. You can start practicing root cause analysis today - just ask "Why?".
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