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

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.

Root cause analysis is a witch hunting tool—Like any tool, you can use root cause analysis for good or for evil. I would not be telling the truth if I said that no one has ever used root cause analysis as a tool to hunt for witches. I would be telling the truth if I told you that those who did use it for that purpose only used it once, then no one ever helped them again with root cause analysis. Hunting such quarry will render the effort useless. The fact of the matter is that we cannot technically be accurate in true root cause analysis if we witch hunt. If we do not understand why people make decision errors that result in failure, then we cannot be assured the event will not recur. It is absolute necessary to understand the human decision making process in true root cause analysis. Witch hunting prevents this from occurring.

Root cause analysis is the engineer’s job—For decades, analytical tasks, such as root cause analysis, have been viewed as the responsibility of the more technical professions, such as engineers, scientists, academics, etc. While such expertise is helpful on a root cause analysis team, it does not guarantee results. It has been my experience that any event in any organization can be solved with the talent the company employs. However, I have found that root cause analysis teams are much more successful with the participation of the hourly workforce, the people closest to work. No one knows the specifics of the operations like those on the floor who are in a position to sense their surroundings daily. Personally, any attempt to do root cause analysis without the participation of hourly workers is a missed opportunity for the organization and a potential risk to the successful conclusion of the analysis.

Root cause analysis is only useful for major events—Many believe that the only time root cause analysis should be applied is when someone is injured, there is catastrophic damage, there is an environmental incident or some regulatory agency requires it. Oftentimes root cause analysis is only applied to such situations. Do these events reflect the major sources of loss to an organization? Our experience says that such sporadic events are minor contributors to the overall losses of an organization. On the contrary, our experience shows that 20 percent or less of the chronic events account for 80 percent or more of the losses.

Root cause analysis is a reactive tool—What eats our lunches are the small, chronic events that are accepted as a cost of doing business. These events are so widely accepted that they are actually budgeted for on an annual basis. They are usually embedded in the infamous “R” or routine category. They are the “hidden gold” because no one will analyze them because no one is hurt, there is minimal damage, there is no environmental incident and there is no regulatory agency on our back. Using root cause analysis only to investigate sporadic events is a totally reactive use of the method. Using root cause analysis to analyze these chronic events is a proactive measure. If we do not analyze them, no one will.

Root cause analysis is the maintenance department’s problem—Remember when the common term was root cause failure analysis (RCFA). Now we call it root cause analysis. The name changed because most people associate the term “failure” with a mechanical or maintenance loss. This is a misnomer. Our experience shows us that in the continuous process industries, on average, production losses outweigh maintenance losses 4 to 1. This means that a lost downtime hour can cost four times the maintenance cost to repair equipment. However, we often only consider mechanical problems as failures. What about quality defect, poor yields, excessive scrap and rework, extended scheduled shut downs, excessive time to obtain safety permits and the like? Don’t these items generate a considerable amount of loss? Just like safety is everyone’s job, so is root cause analysis. There are no boundaries that confine the analytical thought process of the human being.

It is nothing more than common sense. Hopefully, these descriptions should help to overcome constraints in your organization. The only thing holding us back from being successful with root cause analysis is ourselves. Remember, you cannot do what you cannot imagine.