Root Cause Analysis (RCA) has been used for many years to determine a fault’s first or “root” causes in order to identify process improvement opportunities. The CMMI V1.3 has increased the possible deployment of RCA. That’s good news! Let’s see what RCA is, and how you can use it to get business results.
I define RCA as “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 means that in order to do an RCA, there has to be a problem. You cannot do RCA on fictive problems or on vague issue. To do business effective RCA, you must have a problem that is real and significant, and has hindered in reaching business targets. Also, there must be a chance that similar problems happen in the future, when no action is taken.
The definition also mentions the investigation for root causes. These are not the direct causes for the problem, but may be 4, 5 or even 7 levels deeper. Note also that I use the plural “causes”, as there is almost never one single cause for a problem. But the other way around, root causes are often responsible for multiple problems, now and in the future. Preventing these kinds of problems supports an organization in reaching its targets.
The last part of the definition mentions preventive actions. These actions are related to the root causes, not to the problem. When a problem happens, corrective actions are done to solve the problem. But, that does not lower the risk of similar problems happening. Preventive actions should clearly contribute towards the business targets, by eliminating causes at an elementary level. This is the cheapest, most effective spot to do actions, thus supporting efficiency and lowering costs of the organization.
Root Cause Analysis has been in the CMM en CMMI from the start, but only at the highest maturity level in the process area Causal Analysis and Resolution (CAR). Due to that, many companies were afraid to do it, thereby missing significant business opportunities to learn and improve. CMMI V1.3 recognizes the value of doing Root Cause Analysis at lower maturity organizations, by describing it in the improved process area Quantitative Process Management (QPM). This process area, which helps projects to select, deploy and use measurements includes performing root cause analysis of selected issues to address deficiencies in achieving the project’s quality and process performance objectives. This is crucial for project and teams to learn from mistakes and prevent similar mistakes to happen in the future.
I’ve seen the value of RCA in all kinds of organizations (high and low maturity), because there are always defects and issues that you can learn from, and improve your way of working. The investment to start with RCA is low, and you start getting benefits quickly.
More information about Root Cause Analysis can be found at:
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.