A technician operating a microelectronics machine whose uptime can be improved with root cause analysis

Due to time and budget constraints, it is often necessary to treat “symptoms” of the root cause of asset breakdowns rather than diagnosing the real cause. Root cause analysis (RCA) is a process that can help you prevent equipment, machine, or structural failure and prolong the life of assets.

What is Root Cause Analysis?

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is defined as a systematic process for identifying the origins of problems and determining an approach for responding to and solving them. It focuses on preventing problems rather than simply “putting out fires.” RCA tries to be more scientific about asset failures, going a step beyond troubleshooting.

Goals of Root Cause Analysis

RCA capitalizes on the analysis of data collected from previous asset failures. It’s important to remember that some failures can cascade into other failures, creating a greater need for root cause analysis in order to fully understand the sequence of cause and failure events. Root Cause Analysis typically has 3 goals:

  1. Discover the root cause
  2. Fully understand how to fix and learn from the problem
  3. Apply the solution to this and future problems, establishing repeatable processes and ensuring repeat successes

Root Cause Analysis Example

To illustrate RCA, think about this example. When you go to the doctor, it is usually because you are experiencing symptoms that indicate some type of underlying health issue. Oftentimes, a treatment or medication is quickly prescribed to treat the symptoms, but it may take multiple appointments and tests to get to the root cause of the problem. When the underlying cause is discovered, that’s when a comprehensive treatment plan can be implemented. You may learn how to potentially avoid the same health issue from occurring again in the future.

The Five Whys Method

When executing root cause analysis, one process that is widely used is “The Five Whys”, a method that originated from Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries, in the 1930s. The idea behind this process is that you should be able to figure out the root cause of a problem by asking five “why” questions (more or less than five as needed). Here is a real life example:

  1. Why didn’t your car start? – Because the battery was dead.
  2. Why was your car battery dead? – Because I left the headlights on last night.
  3. Why did you leave the headlights on last night? – Because the headlight warning sensor did not beep when car was last exited.
  4. Why did the headlight warning sensor malfunction? – It suffered a complete failure.
  5. Why did it suffer a complete failure? – Because the part has reached the end of its lifespan.

Using The Five Whys method, you can deduce that the root cause of your car failing to start is an depleted headlight warning sensor (which should beep at you when you exit the car with your lights on). In the case of a sensor such as this, you can’t really prevent it from failing—you can only replace it timely so that your car can be used again right away. However, there may be other repairs you can avoid making by keeping up with preventive maintenance.

Other RCA Methods

While The Five Why’s is a popular RCA method, it is definitely not the only one. You may use one or multiple methods in the same cycle of RCA. Other strategies for RCA include:

The Six Phases of RCA

When Root Cause Analysis is performed, there are six phases in one RCA cycle. The components of asset failure may include environment, people, equipment, materials, and procedure. Before you carry out RCA, you should decide which problems are immediate candidates for this analysis. Just a few examples of where root cause analysis is used include major accidents, everyday incidents, human errors, and manufacturing mistakes. Those that result in the highest costs to resolve, most downtime, or threats to safety will rise to the top of the list.

Phase 1: List and Consider Every Possible Cause

The first thing to do in Root Cause Analysis is to list every potential cause leading up to a problem or event. Place the incident into the context of everything related to the problem. You should also look at a longer time period than the days leading up to when the incident occurred to create a history of what might have gone wrong and when.

This phase requires complete neutrality, focusing on facts. When you are investigating potential causes, some facts may not be available if no one saw what happened or evidence was discarded or destroyed. This is when you should look to secondary sources. You can also construct possible scenarios for how the problem may have occurred.

Phase 2: Gather Additional Data, Information, and Evidence

Phase 2 involves collecting as much data as you can that relates to the potential cause(s) of the problem. This data may come from your existing CMMS software, other databases, digital files, or printed documents. Ask questions to clarify information and drill down into every potential cause. This phase would be where you would implement The Five Whys Method.

Phase 3: Identify What Contributed to the Problem

Phase 3 is to identify everything that contributed to the problem. Make a list of every change or event. If possible, gather evidence of these changes and the main problem that occurred. There are four types of evidence that can be gathered: people, paper, physical, and recording evidence. Just a few examples include interviews, activity-specific paperwork, broken parts, and video footage.

Phase 4: Analyze Collected Data

In Phase 4, you should analyze the collected data. Categorize changes or events by how much influence you have over them. Then decide if each event is unrelated, a correlating factor, a contributing factor, or a root cause. An unrelated event is one that has no impact or effect on the problem whatsoever. A correlating factor is one that is statistically related to the problem, but may or may not have a direct impact on the problem. A contributing factor is an event or condition that directly led to the problem, in full or in part. (We defined root cause in the beginning of this article). This should help you arrive at one or more one root causes. When the root cause has been identified, more questions can be asked. Why are you certain that this is the root cause instead of something else?

Phase 5: Create a Plan for Preventing Future Breakdowns

The fifth phase of RCA is to develop a plan for preventing future breakdowns. It’s important to identify preventive actions you should take that will not only prevent the problem from reoccurring, but also not cause other problems. You should find and present a solution that is repeatable and applicable to more than one situation.

Be sure to ask, how can the root cause be eliminated or avoided so the issue doesn’t occur again? There are reports available in a CMMS to help you identify how to prevent the problem. Just a few examples include changes to the preventive maintenance routine or operator training, new signage or HMI controls, or a change of parts or part suppliers.

In order to predict the potential for future problems (and hopefully avoid them), you should ask a few questions. What can be done to prevent the problem from reoccurring? How will the solution be implemented, and who will implement it? What are the risks involved in this solution?

Phase 6: Implement Plan

Now that you’ve come up with a plan, it’s time to implement that plan. Depending on the type, severity, and complexity of the problem and the plan to prevent it from happening again, there are a number of areas to take into consideration. These include, but are not limited to the people in charge of the assets, the condition and status of the assets themselves, the processes related to the maintenance of those assets, and any people or processes outside of asset maintenance that have an impact on the identified problem.

After root cause analysis is complete, maintenance teams should go back and review the actual downtime and costs impact associated with that problem. This will help you determine if this problem and other similar issues were worth the effort of RCA.

A CMMS Facilitates Root Cause Analysis

A CMMS has many capabilities that can help you complete root cause analysis. You can use historical records and reports, which are both generated and stored in your CMMS. When you create a record of all asset failures and resulting maintenance work, you will have the data you need to complete root cause analysis.

FTMaintenance Assists with RCA

FTMaintenance provides maintenance teams with the information they need to execute effective RCA. Cause tracking allows you to easily build a list of causes for maintenance work and apply them to corrective maintenance work orders. These causes help attribute reasons and to the amount of downtime for your assets.

For more information about the capabilities of FTMaintenance, review our CMMS features page. You can also request a demo to learn more about how FTMaintenance can help you with Root Cause Analysis and many other aspects of maintenance management.

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