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26 Sep 2019

Stop the Firefighting: Use Effective Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) or Causal Analysis when applied correctly should help to prevent the recurrence and occurrence of similar issues within the organization. Why then is such little time, money and or effort afforded to it?

Heroes save the day! Yet again! How often have we come across news articles that laud those who manage the crisis, stop the plane from crashing or save the patient. The reality in any casualty is that, a system failure has resulted in a non-conforming product/service, including failed inspection. Organizations should laud and appreciate those who prevent incidents/ accidents/non-conformities and those who perform effective root cause analysis. Those who recognize near misses and perform CA  should receive equivalent if not more praise.

The root cause of many diseases is lack of a healthy lifestyle. Presumably, annual medical check-ups would show the flaws and enable risk appreciation to prevent a disease or illness from manifesting itself. This data however may not be enough to provide an accurate diagnosis or prevent a serious medical condition. Perhaps some may see the regular check-ups as a waste of money and time! This may help to explain why companies are reluctant to do root cause analysis when non-conformities arise. Their instincts are to do the firefighting when something goes wrong. This basic firefighting often appears to be less expensive, quick and seemingly more convenient. However, as has been proved again and again in various fields (quality, safety, security, etc.) prevention is better and more cost effective than the cure.

Why Problems Persist?

There are many methodologies for root cause analysis (RCA). It is not the intent of this article to educate its readers on the various RCA methodologies. Before we delve into why problem persists let us considers why problems occur. Problems usually occur because of the lack of a functional well implemented management system. This includes the lack of management commitment, timely identification of risks and lack of controls/adequate resources for the processes. Despite repeated warnings from their doctor, patients choose to continue living their current lifestyle. During incident investigation interviews this comment is often heard ‘this is the way we always did it’. Humans are not always accepting of changes and ‘if it ain’t broke then why fix it?’ Management of change is never easy. The larger the organization the more difficult it is to enable the change. Often in management systems, problems are ‘fixed’. This makes the issue go away albeit temporarily. Everyone likes a good score card and ‘fixing’ the issue makes everything look good again. However, when the root cause(s) are not addressed this dragon will raise its ugly head again.

When root cause analysis points toward leadership or top management, the job security aspects may prevent the middle managers from completing the RCA process. This political limitation, to avoid exposing process issues within the ranks of leadership are counterproductive, and yet a reality. As preposterous as it may sound, in some cases leadership may opt for paying the fine when things go wrong and then proceeding as is. This is seen as the ‘less expensive’ option than resourcing actions to prevent the recurrence/occurrence of problems. Conflicts of interest in the workplace, can often be a reason for a lack of effective root cause analysis.

Stopping the Firefighting.

With all due respect to firefighters and other emergency personnel, organizations want to solve the problem, so they do not have to call them back! This means getting to the root cause(s) of the incident. Very often when identifying the root cause(s), the work group or practitioners often stop short of finding the actual “root cause.” These may be the immediate direct or indirect causes. The root case may lie in another part of the organization and often gets missed. Root Cause Analysis when done correctly drives systemic changes to prevent similar issues from cropping up again. As with everything else the RCA team needs the backing of the leadership including the needed resources to be effective.

In conducting effective root cause analysis, the inputs of customers and other stakeholders may be needed. For effective root cause analysis is of interest to all organizations that are integral to the successful implementation of a management system. The element of social responsibility in the defined duties of leadership need to be audited and have consequences when customer focus is lost. The new root cause analysis model should have an element of responsibility attributable to the top management. The intent, not to encourage a blame culture, but a responsibility culture. As a part of QMII’s management system implementation we train selected candidates as a problem-solving team to enable and empower continued success of the system. To sit in the fire house and focus on other initiatives such as innovation, social responsibility etc. an organization has to proactive rather than be responsive.


Leadership often questions why money spent on management systems, particularly when based on ISO Standards do not work? Why a conforming product or service is not constantly delivered by an organization? Mature organizations recognize that the only bad nonconformity (NC) is the one that they do not know about. Once the NC is identified, the system must drive Correction and CA (corrective action, based on RCA). Closed NCs added to the database, along with the proper analysis of the information, will allow system users to appreciate risks and trends to identify the opportunities for improvement (OFI). However, all this will fail if the MS (management system) users do not understand the value of RCA.

For the success of a Management System, its outputs based on inputs must deliver conforming products and services.  When the Management System does not achieve this, all stakeholders should be interested in the root cause analysis and corrective action.