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Remembering Root Cause
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The Quality Tool I Never Use
Remembering Root Cause
Apply RCA Through 10 Easy
Steps to Radically Improve Your Business
Want a test to see how long it’s
been since you graduated from business school (or how
much you studied when you were there in the first place)?
Take this pop quiz:
Root Cause Analysis is:
A) A healthy growth rate based on training the upper
levels of management and allowing time for trickle down
before re-evaluating staffing
B) Problem solving
C) A really scary trip to the dentist
If you picked C, “A really scary
trip to the dentist,” you’re lucky, because
that’s wrong. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is actually
problem solving, and no one should be afraid of that.
What you should be afraid of is not reviewing the
principles of RCA.
RCA is a simple, no-nonsense solution
to everyday mishaps that cost you money and productivity.
There’s no need to dust off your textbooks. RCA
specialists Steve Pollock and John Waters have done that
for you and they’ve put a fresh face on a subject
that’s been dormant too long.
“RCA is so simple and helpful,
yet it’s almost forgotten today,” says
Pollock, director of continuous improvement at Radio
Sound in New Albany, Ind. “When I became interested
in pursuing RCA about four years ago, I was shocked at
the lack of information about the strategy. Do you know
how many books there are on RCA? One. Published in
1993!” Pollock shakes his head, and you know the
next words out of his mouth are going to be,
“Something had to be done.”
The Benefits of
Pollock and Waters took action and developed their own
implementation strategy for RCA. “It’s
important for any organization to identify the most
obvious areas for continuous improvement and to take
action,” says Pollock. “RCA is an organized
method for identifying continuous improvement
opportunities, and now more than ever, RCA can make a big
impact on the company’s bottom line.”
Pollock is referring to the technologies now available
for gathering and analyzing data. RCA seeks out
“non-conformities”—extra expenses due
to manufacturing mistakes, as an example—and relies
on data collection to seek out those problems.
The advantages of RCA are cost
reduction and improved efficiency plus other, less
obvious benefits such as providing a method for helping
internal and external customers by deflating tension and
reducing feelings of helplessness in service personnel.
Another plus is RCA focuses improvement efforts on
prevention, not reaction.
“That’s empowering,” says Waters, a
manager at Southern Graphic Systems in Louisville, Ky.
“If you’re on the shop floor and you see the
same mistakes over and over again, then you can be the
When I was working on the floor at Southern
Graphics’ cylinder division, I saw that we were
making cylinders that were just a fraction too small
about three times a year. That may not seem like much to
you, but these are expensive cylinders that take a bite
out of the budget when you have to replace the defective
ones. Basically, it was an easy problem to fix—more
precise measuring devices were available and I
implemented the utilization of those.”
For RCA to work, employees need to be
involved on all levels. Pollock couldn’t make RCA
work without the understanding of and belief in the
strategy by people like Waters. The two developed a
step-by-step strategy for RCA that anyone can apply to
his or her own company. When implementing the 10 steps of
their RCA strategic plan, Pollock urges users to,
“Make sure you keep it practical. That’s the
underlying current in all of the steps.”
The 10 Steps of Root Cause
Step One: Review ISO 9001,
This is an international standard for setting up a
generic quality system applicable to any industry or
organization. This ISO section outlines basic Root Cause
Analysis procedure, although it doesn’t make the
obvious connection between the two methodologies.
Step Two: Identify the root cause.
A root cause is a symptom’s silent partner. Say the
symptom, also called a non-conformity, is the unbudgeted
high cost of replacing three undersized cylinders a year.
If the root cause is actually the imprecise measuring
gauge used on the shop floor, you have to identify the
gauge as the root cause. An investigation needs to take
place. “But make sure this doesn’t turn into
a witch hunt,” warns Waters. “What you need
to do is make sure employees know you’re trying to
fix the system, not affix blame. If you don’t show
people that you’re trustworthy with this, if you
don’t take the time to explain what exactly it is
you’re trying to do, you aren’t going to get
Step Three: Identify a good method for looking for
Pollock and Waters use Pareto, fishbone, cause and effect
diagrams, control charts and process capability studies.
Once you begin doing RCA you’ll want to be
well-versed in all these methods for looking for root
Step Four: Understand the difference between
preventive and corrective action.
Corrective action eliminates the root cause of the
symptom; preventive action eliminates the potential for
symptoms and root causes. “Few people take the
steps to preventive action, and that’s something
you need to facilitate,” says Pollock. “You
have to get people to pursue prevention as part of the
Step Five: Use these three steps to form your own
procedure and write it all down.
You have to get people to read your RCA procedure for it
to really fly. “You want to give people a written
set of instructions to follow,” Waters says.
“Procedures show if you’re conforming to ISO,
and if that’s your goal, you definitely need some
proof of that. Plus, procedures standardize routine
thinking for RCA and it helps reassure the customer. It
says, ‘See, we really care about correcting and
finding mistakes. We’re quality
Step Six: Above all, make your RCA procedures
They should be short and sweet, easy to read and easy to
follow. Avoid a lot of tiresome rhetoric.
Step Seven: Determine when data will be created
and how it will be used to prevent future potential
This is where you utilize all the charts and analytical
tools, especially for prevention. Require scheduled
meetings to review the data and implement continuous
Step Eight: Establish a quick turnaround time for
corrective action to be implemented.
If you discover a problem, but then take forever to solve
it, you risk alienating potential proponents of RCA, and
they might not be there to give honest input the next
Step Nine: Now your RCA plan is complete and
As a final measure, compare it to ISO 414 standards and
adjust to include anything you forgot.
Step 10: Take a step back.
Weigh the benefits of utilizing this plan and make sure
they exceed the cost of RCA from an emotional and
interpersonal perspective. “A general rule of thumb
is if it’s a hassle, the improvement plan or idea
won’t succeed,” says Pollock. “People
have to feel free to challenge routine and challenge each
other. That’s the real trick to