MRO Magazine

How to perform a root cause analysis and corrective action

It’s not uncommon for businesses to run into issues with quality or non-conformances. What they do next determines how effectively they can overcome challenges and enhance profitably when making their products.

September 5, 2023 | By Richard Kunst

Photo: PHOTO: © fovito / Adobe Stock

Photo: PHOTO: © fovito / Adobe Stock

When running day-to-day operations and having pressure of hitting sales targets, it’s easy to be reactionary rather than proactive when following up on problems with processes. When this happens, often only symptoms are addressed, and shortcuts are taken. Unfortunately, this leads to implemented measures being wrong, or only a temporary fix and a very expensive solution.

The instinctive reaction is to use “brain storming” and a heavy reliance on using job skill and experience, which seldomly identifies potential root causes. Reactionary problem solvers seldomly seek to identify potential changes and distinctions. Rather than addressing the root cause of the problem, they treat the symptoms. As a result, they fall into a detrimental, cyclical pattern where the problem recurs.

How can businesses escape this self-perpetuating spiral? It starts with a problem-solving method known as root cause analysis and corrective
action (RCCA).

What is RCCA?
In manufacturing, root cause analysis is a structured approach to solving problems that can arise either in the actual production process or in an administrative support process. But what is a root cause?


The American Society for Quality (ASQ) defines a root cause as “a factor that causes a non-conformance and should be permanently eliminated through process improvement. The root cause is the core issue — the highest-level cause — that sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction that ultimately leads to the problem.”

This analysis empowers leaders to systematically identify the underlying causes of problems that commonly occur — whether they are related to quality, delivery, safety, or efficiency. For example, if a product has a defect, RCCA can help you determine the “how, what, when, where, and why” the situation occurred.

Photo: © syaheir / Adobe Stock

This due diligence and focused analysis involve collecting and analyzing data, conducting interviews with the involved employees, and techniques such as process mapping to understand the sequence and interaction of tasks to highlight the weak spots in the process. Ideally, after identifying the root cause, the team will apply the corrective measures necessary to resolve and prevent a recurrence. In industries where safety is a concern, the corrective action process takes centre-stage in importance.

Corrective actions often result in:
-Making changes to an existing process;
-Training and educating employees on proper deployment of a process;
-Implementing a new process, procedure, or policy; and,
-Updating or revising existing safety measures.

Why does the root cause analysis methodology matter?
RCCA removes emotion and bias by identifying the most important cause-and-effect relationship in the system that broke down. When conducted properly and objectively, the RCCA process can improve quality, safety, and efficiency without playing the blame game. It simply improves the system.

A proper application of RCCA can save your business time, money, and resources while simultaneously improving customer satisfaction.

How do you perform root cause analysis?
Let’s break it down into 10 steps.

1. Organize a cross-functional team
Establish and organize a cross-functional team, including representatives from various departments and functions within the organization, such as: engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, quality, and health and safety. Ensuring that your team can apply diverse perspectives and skills and the breadth of expertise necessary to identify root causes more precisely. A cross-section of skills and knowledge empowers the meeting facilitator to analyze the issue from multiple angles and perspectives. Remember communication and collaboration are key. Everyone must commit to working together to focus on the problem.

2. Define the problem
A key in setting up the corrective action is defining the problem. The problem statement must be specific and narrowly defined to describe one and only one problem. If the problem statement is defined too broadly, it will be difficult to focus on the root cause. Ask, what object (or group of objects) has the deviation; what deviation does it have; and what do we see, hear, feel, taste, or smell that tells us there is a deviation. Ultimately the acid test of having a good problem statement is that will contain only one (1) Object and only one (1) deviation.
Your team’s initial challenge will be distinguishing the problem’s causes from the symptoms. Symptoms are signs of pre-existing issues, whereas the root cause is the core issue that might generate several symptoms.

Photo: © JeromeMaurice / Adobe Stock

We can separate these symptoms into two categories:
Above the surface
Obvious material defects, broken parts, paperwork “triggers” – missing information to kick off the next process step, cost to replace parts, and cost to process return merchandise authorizations (RMAs).

Below the surface

Employee overtime, additional freight cost to make up delays, administrative processing time, capacity constraints that diminish ability to take on more business, building and maintaining extra inventory, extra inspection, unnecessary product or informational rework, unnecessary testing time, and time spent placating unhappy customers.

From there, you should ask follow-up questions, such as what, where, when, extent, and how.

3. Confirm the problem with a Gemba walk
A Gemba walk is a management technique in lean manufacturing created by the Japanese automobile manufacturers, which involves walking the production floor. A manager will observe the work, interview employees, and gather data about processes. The goal is to identify weaknesses and gaps to requirements, determine whether a different result occurred, and see if the problem can be duplicated. Once the issue has been understood, the gaps can be closed, and all requirements can be met. Those requirements can be internally or externally imposed.

If the issue doesn’t arise, the question becomes, “why?” — what would have to change for it to happen again?

4. Identify and analyze causal factors, looking for distinctions and changes
With the problem defined, the next step is to understand why or how the problem occurred. Without the relevant data to understand a problem’s cause, preventing recurrence comes down to luck. Most non-conformances are the result of a change that happened within the process or perhaps a unique distinction inherent to the process.

Gathering root cause data requires combining a few different approaches. To start, consult any machine activity logs recorded automatically. You may also need to compile workers’ accounts, camera footage, and data from prior processes or related to inputs. Analyzing this data should help uncover the causal factors behind the incident, such as whether the team was understaffed at the time or if a new materials supplier’s quality standards contributed.

To begin your analysis, start by evaluating the equipment, reviewing the process’s procedures, considering the materials, and reviewing personnel.
If there are issues, you need to gather a statistically significant number of data points to verify that this is a real pattern and not an anomaly.

5. Formulate a theory and potential root causes
Having performed a comprehensive review, you should have enough data and evidence now to formulate a theory that states the potential cause(s) or nonconformity. For instance, if the problem is environmental, you’ll want to follow up by reviewing factors like space, workflow, lighting, and ventilation. If the issue has to do with personnel, you’ll want to review factors like training, qualifications, planning, scheduling, time, resources, communication, and employee physical and mental well-being/job pressures/stress.

6. Perform short-term containment
Addressing a root cause issue with corrective action rarely involves immediate fixes — machine replacement or repair, personnel or worker retraining, suppliers, rethinking an existing process, and other solutions often create production downtime. Therefore, until corrective action takes effect, you’ll need to first focus on mitigation strategies.

To begin, establish a containment strategy to prevent the issue from spreading or having further negative impact. This may involve physically isolating a particular area, process, or machine. If there are no threats to worker or equipment safety identified, it may involve performing the process as normal with continual inspections throughout and additional quality assurance steps afterward.

Short-term containment efforts are only temporary measures to alleviate the symptoms. Those interim responses may impact efficiency, delivery times, or production costs, which could affect your operation’s profitability. However, depending on your corrective action timeline, you may need to maintain those short-term measures until you are able to confirm true problem resolution.

7. Identify and implement solutions for long-term corrective action
After containing the problem, brainstorm long-term solutions. In the beginning, you may be able to formulate several possible solutions. Through discussion, you should be able to narrow down that list to the best solution.

To create this short list, take the following steps:
-Rank the solutions: Assign weights to each and prioritize from most to least effective.
-Divide the solutions into sequential tasks: Some fixes may be multi-step; arrange them in the proper, most effective order.
-Create action items with responsibilities and assigned due dates: Once the solutions are determined, everyone involved should be assigned tasks and expected completion dates to ensure a change is implemented. Project management becomes most important.
-Establish a contingency plan: You should take the time to ask and answer the following questions: what could go wrong, how will we know it, how can we prevent it or at least mitigate it?

8. Monitor and verify the solution
Next, you’ll monitor the situation to ensure that your implemented fixes achieved their intended impact and prevented the issue from recurring. If your corrective action was successful, this may involve confirming any new issues are absent from the gathered data, inspection reports, and
your observations. However, what happens if the problem does recur? You’ll need to reject the initial root cause determination and try a different solution. Revisit your investigatory data to identify a different root cause. Be sure to expand your investigatory scope and identify whether the issue occurred elsewhere during production processes.

To protect client relationships, you should also determine if any products with defects were shipped to customers and what actions you must now take. This likely involves replacing the product at no charge. You should check products that have recently shipped, products that are still in transit, and products that might be in the customer’s warehouse or stockroom.

Depending on the business relationship, you should proactively provide information about your problem and the temporary containment and long-term corrective actions that you’ve begun implementing. If you are in a regulated industry supply chain, you might be required to disclose the problem and even perform a product recall.

9. Verification
Monitoring your corrective action’s success requires more than a few days. It may take weeks or months of careful observation to ensure that the problem has been fully resolved. Therefore, be patient and allow as much time as needed before assuming that issue has been eradicated. This step is often missed, and it’s why we see the same problems repeat themselves.

10. Update the documentation and procedures
Once you’ve verified that your corrective actions have had the desired effect, you should update your existing documents and procedures so they can be used as instructional materials to train others so the issue doesn’t crop up again.

Revise your current documents accordingly, including procedures, work instructions, and standard work; user handbooks with photos to add details and guidance; guideline specifications; and service manuals.

Distribute the new procedures to the affected employees in the relevant departments, provide appropriate training, and confirm that they understand and will follow these new methods. If your company maintains any of the quality certifications such as ISO 9001, there is an additional requirement to verify that the employee is fully competent in the revised process.

RCCA helps business improve their quality processes
RCCA supports operations improvements by promoting the problem-solving culture of team communication, resulting in behavior change and company culture focused on quality. Rather than simply dealing with symptoms in a reactionary manner, you can train your team to address the root causes. This way of thinking encourages deeper employee engagement and real empowerment throughout your workforce. We want the employees to drive the problem-solving process.
Richard Kunst is an author, speaker and seasoned lean practitioner based in Toronto, who leads a holistic practice to coach, mentor and provide management solutions to help companies implement or accelerate their excellence journeys. You can reach him at


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