Getting to the Root Causes of Problems

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) has been used by many to determine a fault’s first or “root” causes in order to identify and implement process improvement opportunities. Given the current economic climate, the business case for RCA has become more explicit than ever.  The price of fixing problems after delivery is something that most organizations cannot afford, so they need to Drive Quality and prevent products being delivered to customers with defects.

Root Cause Analysis is a technique to analyze a problem, to determine the causes that made that problem happen, and to define actions to prevent similar problems from happening. This definition tells us that in order to do an RCA, there has to be a real problem. You cannot do RCA on fictive problems or on vague issues. To do business effective RCAs, that should be a problem that is significant, and has hindered in reaching business targets. Also, there must be a chance that similar problems will happen in the future, when no action is taken. And that’s something that the organization cannot afford.

Many organizations that I worked with are doing some form of Root Cause Analysis. Organizations that are working Agile or Lean apply RCA in their retrospectives, or in specific RCA sessions where major or repeating problems (waste!) are analyzed. It can be combined with Open Spaces and Solution Focus into an agile process improvement approach, to reduce maintenance and lower your technical debt. There are practical tools like processes, templates and examples available to start with RCA.  CMMI V1.3 has increased support for deployment, by describing RCA it in the improved process area Quantitative Process Management. Causal Analysis and Resolution, as RCA is called in CMMI, is used in the CMMI Process Roadmap to enable continuous improvement.

One of the biggest benefits of RCA is that it shows a clear relationship between the causes and problems. When an organization doesn’t want similar problems to happen, there is often a sense of importance and urgency to take preventive actions (aka commitment). An RCA contains an implicit business case, since it shows what the costs of a problem have been. In most cases the investment needed for the preventive actions are low compared to the potential loss if similar problems happen, an ROI of 10:1 is not uncommon (see Measuring and Controlling Product Quality if you want to know more about the business case for quality improvement). RCA can also help you to take better decisions on what to test, and what not, which can give significant savings.

So if you are looking for a way to cut costs, and there are problems that are costing you money, then Root Cause Analysis may well be an investment worth doing.

My 2nd book What Drives Quality, released in 2017, helps you to improve the quality of the software products and deliver high-quality products to your customers and stakeholders.

There’s also a handy booklet on RCA: Tools for Root Cause Analysis which provides a process, checklist, and templates for doing effective Root Cause Analysis.

(This blog was posted Sep 29, 2010, and updated Jul 10, 2012: Extended with examples and practical tools and links to get started with Root Cause Analysis. Updated Dec 30, 2017, with my new book and booklet).

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. The root cause? Only one?

    When someone reports “the root cause”, I ask:
    1. What were the other harmful factors that have equal or better claim to be called “root causes” in accordance with the definition of “root cause” you used to qualify that one.
    2. What were the factors that directly resulted in the nature, the magnitude, the location, and the timing of your “root cause?”

    1. Hi William,

      You’re fully correct, usually there is more then 1 root cause that lead to a problem. So when you have a first “root cause”, be sure to check if it is really a root cause (there may be multiple causes below), and check if there are other causes or conditions that played a role.

      Thanks for pointing this out!

      Best regards,
      Ben Linders

  2. Ben,

    I have collected twenty-nine definitions of “root cause.” Many of the definitions are official and some are from the same agency.

    These confusing and conflicting definitions are in “The Rootician’s Dictionary” at

    Did I miss any of your favorites?

    It is important for investigators to ask, “What were the other harmful factors that have equal or better claim to be called “root causes” in accordance with the definition of “root cause” you used to qualify that one.”

    All the best,


    1. Bill: Thanks for sharing this with us. This is useful information for everybody who is doing Root Cause Analysis!

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