MRO Magazine

Eliminate costly problems using root-cause analysis


March 10, 2010
By PEM Magazine

In most industrial operations, 80 percent of the losses are caused by 20 percent of the problems. Equipment downtime, reduced production output, excessive off-spec product, costly repairs, environmental spills, explosions and fires are some of these problems; most of them are repetitive and have multiple root causes that are difficult to uncover. When these root causes are eliminated, emergencies decrease and bottom-line results improve considerably.

Comparison of Analytical Processes
Fig.1 shows a table comparing the main features of the four most common analytical processes used to resolve problems. Following is a short description of each process with comments related to their value for eliminating costly/complex industrial problems.

Troubleshooting: Consists of individually identifying the cause of a problem and applying a solution to get back into operating condition — no lasting improvement.

Brainstorming: Consists of asking a group of employees close to the problem to think creatively and write down as many causes for the problem as possible, then discuss their ideas as a group and finally come up with an action plan. This analysis is shallow and generally ends-up as a trial-and-error exercise that often creates new problems instead of solving the current one — there is a significant risk of making matters worse.

Problem Solving
: Consists of creating an analysis team, defining the problem, determining its cause(s), identifying, prioritizing and selecting alternatives for a solution, and implementing a solution. This process has the basic steps for resolving problems but, it is not thorough enough to generate improvements on a consistent basis.


Root-Cause Analysis (RCA): Includes all the basic steps of the Problem Solving process but has a more disciplined data collection and hypothesis verification, all the cause-and-effect relationships are clearly mapped-out and the analysis is carried out to the depth required to uncover physical, human and latent root causes. The elimination of physical root causes is generally simple, inexpensive and provides excellent contribution to the bottom-line. The elimination of human and latent root causes goes beyond solving the immediate problem — it prevents many related problems from occurring in the future.

Most proactive companies use RCA to eliminate costly/complex industrial problems. Best results are attained when the analyses are facilitated by external RCA consultants because they are unbiased, provide a fresh perspective to look into the problems and have experience leading cross-functional teams.

An external RCA facilitator typically:

  1. Works with the client’s Improvement Leader to clearly define the company’s most costly problem, this includes what happened, where, when and its consequences. (1-2 days)
  2. Facilitates the resolution of the above problem.  The problem is analysed by a cross-functional team that includes the Improvement Leader and 5-7 employees. (1-2 weeks)
  3. Follows-up on the project until main root causes are eliminated (1-5 days/month)
  4. Remains forever as a remote RCA resource for this analysis team — free of charge

Main steps are:    

  • Training the leader and team members on RCA concepts
  • Reviewing the problem definition with the team and setting clear expectations for the analysis
  • Collecting and preserving evidence to support cause-and-effect relationships
  • Mapping-out the cause-and-effect relationships that combined caused the problem — logic tree
  • Analyzing the problem to uncover its physical, human and latent root causes — developing hypothesis and verifying them
  • Developing and implementing an action plan to prevent same and similar problems
  • Communicating throughout the organization the lessons learned from the analysis

With the above approach, team members solve a costly problem and learn the RCA methodology at the same time. The extensive involvement of your own employees in solving the problem, makes the process very effective, makes the gains sustainable and keeps costs to a minimum. Solving the most costly problem creates great enthusiasm throughout the company to tackle many other problems.

Typically, external facilitators are professional engineers with a passion for solving industrial problems, as proven by their many successes in a variety of industries. They all had extensive direct-industrial experience in engineering, maintenance and operations.

Identify a costly problem in your operation and contact an external RCA facilitator to help you solve it, your knowledge of your operation and the facilitator experience in solving problems make a winning combination.

Tony Rodriguez, P.Eng., is a director and principal analyst with Pemmax Consultants. You can contact him at (519) 888-9970 or