The top 10 reasons people don't trust root cause analysis

The top 10 reasons why it will never work in my company.

By Robert J. Latino

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We have all been inundated with the flavor of the month “programs” that come down the corporate pike. We see the acronym coming from a mile away. We see the lip service support given to the effort and then, gradually, expectations fading into the sunset. We are often conditioned in this fashion. But could this conditioning negate our receptivity to common sense?

As an industrial Root Cause Analysis consultant, trainer and practitioner, I have visited hundreds of facilities and trained thousands of engineers, managers, mechanics and operators. I wish that I had a dollar for every time I have heard how “…our facility is very complex”, or “…we are different from everybody else”. If I had those dollars, I would not have to work very long.

What many people do not realize is that there is one common denominator in root cause analysis, no matter where we work, we are human beings. This is no revelation. Yet we constantly strive to convince ourselves that our problems are the result of things beyond our control. To me, this is rationalizing why we have been unable to resolve an issue. Keep in mind, that humans created the equipment, processes and systems in which we work.

The proper application of root cause analysis must first involve the understanding and acceptance that the nature of the undesirable event is irrelevant. True root cause analysis involves understanding how the human mind resolves undesirable situations. The industry in which it is applied is irrelevant. I frequently work in steel mills, paper mills, chemical plants, oil refineries, healthcare facilities, service companies and the like. I could not possibly have expertise in each. There are no direct commonalities across these industries, except that human beings run them.

To be successful with root cause analysis, we must first overcome our objections to our perceptions of it. I have compiled a list, based on my experience, of the top ten reasons that people believe root cause analysis will not work in their organization. They are as follows:

  • It takes too much time.
  • It is too expensive.
  • It is the “program-of-the-month”.
  • We already have reliability-centered maintenance.
  • I will work myself out of a job.
  • It is a witch hunting tool.
  • It is the engineer’s job.
  • It is only useful for major events.
  • It is a reactive tool.
  • It is the maintenance department’s problem.

Do these responses sound familiar? Whether these conditions actually exist or not, if people believe they do, then they will make decisions as if they do exist. Most of the time, our obstacles to root cause analysis success, is our own view of the world. Let’s take each of these restraints and see whether they are fact or fiction.

Root cause analysis takes too much time—I enjoy hearing this objection because my next question is “If this takes too much time, what are you so busy working on?” The fact of the matter is that we are so busy being firefighters (reactors) that we cannot find the time to eliminate the need for the fire fighting. This can become a dangerous maintenance strategy called crisis management. The truth is that we can’t afford not to do root cause analysis. Think of the time that would be freed up if our people were not constantly fighting fires.

It is too expensive—I find this one amusing as well, because we always find the money to fix something repeatedly, but we cannot seem to find enough cash to be proactive. It’s funny that budgets rarely include costs for a catastrophic event, yet when one happens, we always find the cash to respond. Consider the costs associated with routine chronic events, such as bearing failures; manpower dollars, material dollars and lost production at a minimum. Add up these costs for events over the course of a year and see if root cause analysis is too expensive. Not likely.

Root cause analysis (RCA) is the program-of-the-month—Of course, it will be viewed as this. It is just another acronym. Once an effort has a new acronym attached to it, that is the beginning of the demise. We often see that the average “program-of-the-month” has a shelf life of about six months. Most will sit back and see if the effort lasts beyond that. If so, then they may get on board. The fact is that root cause analysis is common sense and should be viewed as the way we do business. Safety survived on this concept.

We already have reliability-centered maintenance—I am always surprised that companies approach us about bidding on a project where the bidders will be root cause analysis and reliability-centered maintenance firms. This is a clear indication that the company issuing the RFQ does not understand either. Reliability-centered maintenance is typically a means to identify and prioritize critical equipment for developing a custom preventive/predictive maintenance program. Seeing the requestor’s confusion sharpens our response to impending failure. Root cause analysis, on the other hand, strives to eliminate the risk of event recurrence so that there is nothing to predict in the future. These are diametrically different concepts that are complementary, not contradictory. We are cautious whenever anyone treats root cause analysis as a commodity. If people believe that root cause analysis is a commodity, then the methodology used by the awarded firm is of no consequence and low cost, not value, is the driver. We will typically remove ourselves from bidding situations where we are viewed as a commodity and the value of our method is not a criterion.

I will work myself out of a job—This is a common concern among people whose sole purpose is to repair equipment and processes on a daily basis. Imagine if you are a maintenance person and these root cause analysis people show up and say their goal is to eliminate failures. Where does that leave me? What few realize is that the typical maintenance function is, primarily, a reactive task. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could better use the creativity and experience of these individuals for proactive means? Think of the proactive functions fow which we currently do not have proper staffing; preventive maintenance technicians, predictive maintenance technicians, root cause analysis analysts, inspectors, etc. When we eliminate the need for the repair work, we should free up the time of some very skilled people to do the proactive jobs, which increase the reliability of our operations. We should not consider root cause analysis as forcing us out of a job, but rather providing us a more challenging one.

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