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Root Cause Analysis: Getting to the Bottom of Problems
( Marketing Memo April 2011)

This winter we were among the owners of homes and businesses who had water leaks. People who had walls and windows repaired before identifying the original cause of the leaks will likely experience future water damage. Many businesses use Root Cause Analysis (RCA) to explore the starting place or root cause of negative business outcomes. To select the best solution to a problem, you need to know the original or root cause of the problem.

MindTools recommends that you take three steps to uncover the root cause of a problem. To see how RCA works, assume that Dynamo, a healthcare software company, is unsure what to do about an eighteen month decline in revenues:

  • First, Dynamo should investigate what happened and find out what collateral damage occurred. Changes in one part of the business often result in changes in another part of the business. Records showed that sporadic product failures were occurring among customers that had not renewed contracts. Customers were already blogging about these failures.
  • Second, Dynamo should try to explain why the problem occurred. Dynamo should track down the original cause of the problem. Was it the result of product shortcomings or the result of poor documentation, and/or training?
  • Third, Dynamo should identify ways to decrease the chances that the problem will recur. If it is a problem with the product, Dynamo could improve its quality assurance process or redesign the product, testing for product usability. If the problem lies with poor customer training, then Dynamo should re-examine its entire training program.

To apply Root Cause Analysis, Dynamo should look for "patterns of negative effects" to find "specific actions" or "flaws in the system" that could have caused the problem. Typical causes may be:

  • Physical causes - An object failed. Perhaps a server failed, interrupting service to customers using Dynamo's hosted services.
  • Human causes - Humans did something wrong or failed to do something necessary, which could also lead to a physical cause. Perhaps a technician failed to maintain the server on schedule, or someone shipped old documentation.
  • Organizational causes - A faulty "system, process, or policy that people use to make decisions or do their work." Perhaps Dynamo hadn't reminded customers that their contracts were about to expire.

We have uncovered the root causes of several client problems. In one case, prospective customers weren't buying software that automatically inspected large equipment as "it wouldn't work." We probed and found that staff actually feared they would lose their jobs! In another case, customers had replaced a client's fail proof network switches that worked on one platform. We found that the customers had migrated to a newer platform that our client did not support. We can help you get to the bottom of your problems!

Copyright 2011 Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.

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