Getting to the Root of Recurring Problems with a Root Cause Analysis

If you notice that your construction business is encountering the same problems over and over again, chances are it is because your organization has failed to take the time to determine the root cause of the problem. Conducting a root cause analysis can help your company identify the sources of such issues, and design an appropriate plan for minimizing the risk that you will face the same problem again.

A root cause analysis (RCA) is an analysis process that can be used to investigate and correct the root causes of recurring adverse incidents, such as employee injuries, property damage, quality problems, equipment accidents or failures, technical mistakes, production problems, manufacturing errors, delivery delays, and environmental violations. In an RCA, a root cause is defined as a physical, human, or organizational cause that leads to a negative event. The goal is to determine why the event happened, and to eliminate its cause, thereby saving your company time, money, and other resources. This is done by encouraging the participants in such exercises to rely less on intuitive decision-making, and to instead engage in a process of rational analysis that guides them to make decisions based on facts.

While the objectives in conducting an RCA are likely to vary, the main aim is always to analyze a problem or an event to determine what occurred, how it occurred, and why it occurred. For an RCA to be effective, the team performing the analysis must be willing to approach the issue in an open-ended manner. This means accepting the possibility that there is more than one root cause for a problem or event, and avoiding the temptation to focus on the symptoms rather than the underlying causes. The participants should also be willing to engage in an analytical process resulting in conclusions that are supported by empirical evidence, and be prepared to implement corrective countermeasures to prevent the problem from recurring.

A method that is commonly used in RCAs is the “5 Whys” technique. Popularized in management circles in the 1970s by the Toyota Production System, this strategy seeks to identify the cause of the problem by following the chain of errors that led to the adverse event. The process starts by naming the problem and then asking why it occurred. The answer to the first question will prompt the second question of why. This cycle of questions is repeated at least five times until the root of the problem is discovered.

Another RCA technique is the “Is and Is Not” analysis. This method is applied by asking in what circumstances or contexts the problem happens,and in what circumstances or contexts it does not happen. By narrowing down where the problem happened, this process can uncover patterns that shed light on why the problem occurred.

A brainstorming tool that is often used when conducting an RCA is a cause-and-effect diagram, or a fishbone diagram. Originally developed as part of Japan’s quality improvement movement, the tool uses categories to encourage the participants to think objectively and to visualize the root cause. First, the problem is identified and is drawn as the head of the fishbone. The broad categories of causes are then identified and drawn as bones that extend from the spine. Next, the secondary causes are drawn as sub-branches off of the main categories. These causes are prioritized, and the “5 Whys” analysis is applied to each cause. The participants then select the cause that is the most likely source of the problem, and seek to verify their conclusion by gathering and testing data. Finally, a solution to the problem is chosen. The change is institutionalized by updating project management guidelines to ensure that the proposed solution is integrated into future projects.


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