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Getting to the Root Cause

16 Apr
root cause analysis

Environment / Food Safety / Quality / Safety

Comments: 4 Comments

At the most basic level, a root cause is the fundamental reason—or the highest-level cause—for the occurrence of a problem, incident, or event. The root cause sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction that ultimately leads to the problem. Getting to the root cause of any problem is important not just for resolving the issue at hand, but for identifying underlying issues to ensure that similar problems do not occur in the future. This starts with a process called the root cause analysis (RCA).

What Is the Root Cause Analysis (RCA)?

A root cause can be permanently eliminated through process improvement. RCA is a method of problem-solving used to identify the underlying (i.e., root) cause(s) of a problem/incident. RCA can be used to solve problems and provide preventive actions for:

  • Major accidents
  • Everyday incidents
  • Minor near misses
  • Human errors
  • Maintenance problems
  • Medical mistakes
  • Productivity issues
  • Manufacturing mistakes
  • Environmental releases
  • Risk analysis, risk mapping

RCA is a systematic process based on the basic idea that effective management requires more than merely putting out fires. RCA focuses on finding a way to prevent these fires from recurring. Rather than just treating symptoms, RCA seeks to identify and address the true, underlying concerns that contribute to a problem or event.

Why is this important? If you just treat the symptoms of the problem, that alleviates them for the short term, but it does nothing to prevent the problem from coming back again. Lasting solutions address the underlying factors—the root cause(s)— that create the problem in the first place. Targeting corrective measures at the identified root causes, subsequently, is the best way to alleviate risk and ensure that similar problems do not occur in the future.

Best Practice

Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) encourage organizations to conduct RCA following an incident or near miss at a facility. In fact, facilities covered by OSHA’s Process Safety Management (PSM) standard are required to investigate incidents that resulted in (or could have reasonably resulted in) a catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals. Similarly, EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP) regulations require regulated facilities to conduct incident investigations. In addition, certain management systems, including ISO and Responsible Distribution (National Association of Chemical Distributors) to name just a few, also require RCA.

Whether an organization is subject to PSM, RMP, or management system standards, identifying the root cause of any incident or problem through RCA is a best practice that can significantly benefit organizations by identifying underlying issues to ensure that similar problems do not occur in the future. So, how do you effectively implement RCA?

Six-Step Process

RCA can be broken down into a simple six-step process, as outlined below.

Step 1: Identify and Clearly Describe the Problem

The first step is to understand and document the problem/issue/incident that actually occurred. This might involve interviewing key staff, reviewing security footage, investigating the site, etc. to get an accurate account of the issue. Certainly safety- or security-related incidents might require an immediate fix or prompt action before the carrying out the complete RCA. This is always the first priority.

Some problems are easier to define than others based on what happened and the extent of the issue. When defining and describing the problem, it is important to be as descriptive as possible, as this will aid in future steps to identify the root cause(s).

For example, the first description below is somewhat vague. The second description provides an additional level of detail that more fully documents the situation:

  1. A forklift driver wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. (vague)
  2. During a walkthrough of the warehouse on 2/1/20, it was observed that forklift driver John Smith, who is a contract employee, was not wearing his seatbelt while operating the forklift. (clear)

Step 2: Identify Possible Causes…Why?

There are several methods for identifying possible root causes. One of the most common is known as the “5 Why Method”. This approach simply involves asking the question “Why” enough times (i.e., five times) until you get past all the symptoms of a problem and down to the underlying root cause of the issue. The detailed problem description put together during Step 1 serves as the starting point for asking “Why”.

Let’s take our problem description from above a step further to identify the possible causes using the 5 Why Method.

5 why exampleStep 3: Identify Root Cause(s)

At this point, the 5 Why Method is leading you to the core issue that set in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction and, ultimately, that led to the identified problem(s). It’s now time to determine whether the five whys have dug deep enough. Where does your questioning lead you? Is there one root cause or are there a series of root causes contributing to this incident? Often, there are multiple root causes that may be factors to address when preventing future incidents.

In our forklift operator case, the 5 Why Method points to the lack of a standardized checklist of all items to be trained on—including forklift training—prior to a new contract employee coming onsite.

Step 4: Corrective and/or Preventive Action Taken

Based on the identified root causes, it then becomes possible for the facility to determine what corrective and/or prevention actions (CAPAs) can be taken to fix the problem and, just as important, prevent it from occurring in the future. For our example, there are a number of potential CAPAs:

  • Stop the employee from operating the forklift and educate him on seatbelt policy prior to resuming work
  • Review contract/temp employee training program
  • Retrain shift managers on training expectations
  • Obtain training records for contract/temp employees
  • Provide refresher/retraining, as necessary
  • Add signage to forklifts and warehouse bulletin boards about seatbelt policy

Step 5: Analyze Effectiveness

The effectiveness of whatever action is taken in step 4 needs to be evaluated to determine whether it will resolve the root cause. If not, another CAPA should be explored, implemented, and analyzed to assess its impact on the issue/problem. If it is a root cause, it should help to resolve the issue and you should move on to step 6 below.

Let’s return to our example. You might ask, “Was the retraining effective?” An evaluation shows the following:

  • Yes, the employee continues to operate the forklift using seatbelt.
  • Yes, subsequent walkthroughs of the warehouse over the next six months have not resulted in any additional seatbelt violations.
  • The next contract/temp employee brought on to assist during the busy end-of-year season was required to produce current training.

Step 6: Update Procedures, as necessary

As CAPAs are implemented, once they prove effective, related policies and procedures must be updated to reflect any changes made. This step ensures the outcomes of the RCA will be integrated into operations and used to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

In our current example, this might mean that the Contractor Policy is updated to include a new section specific to the hiring of contract/temp employees with the following requirements:

  • Obtain valid training certificates for work performed
  • Ensure Managers conduct on-the-job training for contract/temp employees specific to work performed

Benefits of RCA

Following these six steps will help to ensure a thorough investigation that identifies the root cause(s) versus just symptoms is conducted. It further ensures that any changes related to the root cause are integrated into the organization to prevent similar events from happening again. In the end, the RCA process can help:

  • Reduce the risk of injury and/or death to workers and community members
  • Reduce the potential for environmental damage
  • Avoid unnecessary costs resulting from business interruption; emergency response and cleanup; increased regulation, audits, and inspections; and OSHA or EPA fines
  • Improve public trust by maintaining an incident-free record
  • More effectively control hazards, improve process reliability, increase revenues, decrease production costs, lower maintenance costs, and lower insurance premiums

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