Root Cause Analysis Tools & Techniques

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Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is the formal search for an individual or group of interacting true causes of a problem. The trick is to use the right tool to identify the root cause of a problem and not just the symptoms of a problem. It is common to find more than just one root cause to a problem, so be skeptical if you just find one root cause to any problem. RCA can be pointed at any simple and complex problem but the problem solver has to know what technique to use for different types of problems. For example, let’s look at two different problems:

  1. Fast food drive-through window customers complain that their orders take too long to get filled.
  2. You cannot get good quality for plastic parts made from your new machine that has 25 knobs on it for the control settings.

You would hopefully use different techniques to find out the root causes for each of the above problems but often, in business, that is not the case. Too often, the same tool is used to solve every problem. In the worst case scenario, the ever popular “GOFAAT” Problem Solving Method (Guessing One Factor at A Time) is used to attempt resolution for both problems.

Using the GOFAAT method to solve problem #1 would look like this: The restaurant manager would run around after each customer complaint and scold employee Joe one day, then employee Mary or Larry the next day and then scream at the slow cooking french fry machine the day after that. GOFAAT problem solving is a common, yet ineffective way to attempt problem solving; however, this fact does not dampen its popularity. It is certainly not called GOFAAT by any of its fans but it needs to be labeled as such to expose some organizations to their shortcomings in their problem solving efforts.

Using the GOFAAT method to solve problem #2 would look like this: mold machine operator Terry would spin dial number 7 (lucky 7) a little to the right when things go wrong in the hope that this will make the quality problem go away. Mold machine operator Jerry would spin dial number 13 a little to the left when things go wrong, hoping for a miracle. The Clever mold machine Operator Tito would spin dial number 3 and 5 far to the right when things go wrong in hopes of solving the problem. By the way, Terry, Jerry and Tito never talk to each other because they work on different shifts and management does not allow this group the time to discuss their issues. Unfortunately, this is a common situation that many professional problem solvers encounter when they investigate certain serious problems in a business.

The graph below shows some of the most common Root Cause Analysis Techniques used today. Problem Solving Technique #1 listed on the bottom of the graph is the previously mentioned GOFAAT method. This method requires no training to apply and can be used by an individual or a small team to attempt resolution of a problem. The use of this tool as the primary way of solving problems would be at the bottom of the scale of sophistication when it relates to competency in problem solving. It would be a matter of luck if the GOFAAT problem solving method actually solved any problem in the real world.

The second undesirable Problem Solving Technique on the bottom of the graph is what I call the “Whack-A-Mole” Problem Solving method. It is very popular amongst professionals and managers, but it is unproductive and generates a lot of wasteful and useless action.

Here is how it works: 

A certain manager runs a large factory with 550 people who sew and glue pieces of material together to make purses. The manager of this factory lives a complicated life with several disasters erupting in his/her business every few days; sometimes a few disasters erupt each day. Here is how Whack-A-Mole works: This purse factory manager moves his/her best people to fight a problem in one corner in the business where the big problems are creating chaos. Everything else in the factory gets a much lower priority while this “Whacking” goes on. A few days later, the Manager moves these problem fighters to fight another disaster that erupted in another corner of the purse factory. The manager does not have time to worry if the last fire was fully put out, he/she only cares that it was tamed down and off of his/her radar screen of the top 3 issues.

Whack-A-Mole efforts often address the symptoms of a problem and not the true root causes. It is used by frantic, stressed-out, untrained and unenlightened professionals who believe that any intense group of activities will always yield good results. Unfortunately, only logical, efficient and effective actions get results. Professionals need to learn how to work smarter and not harder.

The GOFAAT and Whack-A-Mole methods can lead to chaos and unresolved issues in business.

The rest of the Group A Problem Solving Techniques on the above chart are Methods #3-5, which include:

  1. Total Quality Management (TQM) & other Basic Brainstorming Techniques
  2. Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) & Disciplined Gap Analysis & Closure
  3. Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) continuous improvement techniques

These are more professional types of problem solving techniques that individuals or ad-hoc teams can use after a certain amount of specialty training. The root causes for low complexity problems could be identified with methods #3-5 with the use of friendly debate, team consensus and the democratic process of team voting. Hard statistics and data verification of root causes are usually not used for this group or problem solving techniques. These techniques can be effectively used on simpler problems. They might not always get it right but most of the time their efforts will pay off, if these methods are used correctly in a disciplined way.

Group B Problem Solving Techniques #6-11 on the above chart include:

  1. Lean Manufacturing & Lean Office
  2. Time & Motion Studies / Spaghetti Charting
  3. Seven Basic Tools of Quality
  4. Lean Kaizen Events
  5. Process mapping with 10 layers of Analysis
  6. Six Sigma and/or Lean & TRIZ

Most of these techniques require very accurate information and/or data so that these techniques can be successful. Most of these tools could be used to address the Not-So-Fast drive-through window customer complaint problem mentioned at the start of this article. A Lean Six Sigma Green Belt, Black Belt or Lean Master has the ability to crack these types of problems by using the right tools at the right time. Specialized training is required to correctly execute these techniques. These Group B problem solving techniques have a higher probability of identifying the correct root causes compared to Group A techniques. However, these techniques are usually applied to solve problems that are more difficult. These methods are used when simple team brainstorming will not yield the true root causes.

Group C Problem Solving Techniques #12-18 on the above chart include:

  1. 3D & Multi-stratification-level graphing
  2. Statistical Hypothesis Testing
  3. Simple Regression Analysis
  4. Multiple Variable Regression
  5. Neural Networks & DOEs
  6. Off-The-Chart DOE Optimization
  7. Artificial Intelligence

These techniques require a lot of accurate data about the problem that is analyzed with specific software to enable the problem solving technique to be successful. These tools could be used to address the bad quality plastic parts story mentioned at the start of this article. The skills required to use these problem solving techniques would be possessed by Lean Six Sigma Black Belts, Master Black Belts and other highly skilled and trained professionals. These techniques are typically used when all other efforts have failed to get to the root cause and solve the problem.

So how does one know when to use what type of problem solving technique to solve a specific problem? The only professionals who could answer such questions would be those who were trained and experienced in all of the techniques 3-18 listed on the above graph. Different subsets of tools listed should be used to solve different types of problems. Unfortunately, only expert problem solvers know what type of tool to use and when to use it. You usually cannot use a Lean tool to solve a Six Sigma problem and vice versa. It should never be a debate about what technique is better; it should always be a discussion about using the right tool to attack a specific type of problem. Varying levels of problem complexity require different types of problem solving techniques.

You cannot use a hammer to fix everything that can go wrong in a house or a chain saw as the only tool to beautify a backyard. None of these mentioned techniques, except for GOFAAT and Whack-A-Mole, should be postured as competitors with each other. They should supplement each other by understanding their strengths and limitations and by using them at the right time to correctly expose the root causes that they were specifically designed to identify.


David J. Patrishkoff is President of E3 Extreme Enterprise Efficiency® LLCheadquartered in Orlando, Florida, USA. He has held worldwide senior executive positions at large multi-national companies in the USA and in Germany. He is a Lean Sigma Master Black Belt, speaker, management consultant, writer, trainer and consultant in many advanced problem solving and avoidance techniques. Ever since 2011, he has dedicated his full time to E3 by consulting and training companies in over 55 different industries, worldwide. David has trained over 3,000 professionals and can help you improve your organization’s performance levels.

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