The appropriate application of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) techniques can yield significant organisational and individual benefits. This article is the first in a series of four, discussing some of the practical issues surrounding the implementation of Root Cause Analysis processes within organisations, and in doing so, attempts to give some guidance to those wishing to obtain success from their Root Cause Analysis program.The four articles in this series will examine the following topics: 

Common root cause analysis misconceptions

Two common misconceptions about Root Cause Analysis (RCA) are either that:

  1. Applying RCA successfully requires the application of some radically new or different skills, or alternatively
  2. RCA is simply “common sense” problem solving

Neither of these is the case.

Most people who undertake a Root Cause Analysis training course are somewhat disappointed to discover that, while RCA includes a few new tools, tips and techniques, these are all reasonably easily learnt, and not represent a radical departure from what most people are capable of applying. This often leads rapidly to the second misconception – that effective problem solving is simply “common sense”, and that, therefore, there is no need for people to be trained in Root Cause Analysis principles.

The experience of many who have participated in effective implementation of Root Cause Analysis principles within their organisations, however, clearly indicate that:

  • “Common sense” is not particularly common
  • Effective implementation of Root Cause Analysis, rather than requiring application of some rote-learnt rules, actually requires a fundamental shift in attitudes and mindset, along with a supportive organisational culture.

We will deal with the second of these points later in this article, but first let’s deal with the concept of Root Cause Analysis as “common sense”.

Is common sense really that common?

I would argue that, not only is common sense not particularly common – but in fact, there is no such thing as “common sense”.

Gano (1) in his book “Apollo Root Cause Analysis” argues that each individual is unique, with our own perceptions, beliefs and values, and that this leads each of us to arrive at quite different conclusions – even when presented with the same “facts”.

A generic problem-solving process can be considered to consist of the following key elements:

  1. Recognition that a problem exists that should be solved (and allocation of an appropriate priority to the solution of this problem)
  2. Identification of possible causes of the problem
  3. Identification of alternative solutions to the problem
  4. Selection of a solution (or solutions) to be applied to resolve the problem, and
  5. Monitoring of the situation to determine whether the solution has been effective in solving the problem

The first phase of this process strongly correlates with the Behavioural Psychological field of “Situational Awareness”. A commonly accepted definition for this field is “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future“ (2).

Numerous studies have shown that there are significant differences between individuals in all of these three areas. 

Some of these differences are as a result of physical differences between individuals in terms of their sensory capabilities (there are differences between individuals in terms of their ability to hear, see, feel, smell and taste). 

Some of these differences are as a result of differences in our backgrounds, attitudes and behaviours. For example, even presented with the same facts, different people will have different perceptions regarding the significance of those facts. In particular, we are more ready to ignore those facts that do not correlate with our current perceptions, and accept those that do fit with our current views. In other words, we see what we want to see.

So right at the very earliest stages of the problem solving process, there are differences between what is “common sense” to one individual, in comparison with common sense to another person.

So how can we solve problems?

In terms of our ability to identify and assess alternative causes of, and solutions to, the problem, once again we run into differences between individuals. Gano (3) quotes a study by Stoutenburg which revealed that, when trying to prevent unacceptable events from happening again, 10% of participants immediately sought to place blame, 26% immediately expressed an opinion of the causes and offered an opinion withoug investigating the problem, and only 20% of participants examined the problem in sufficient detail to be able to identify an effective solution. From these statistics, it is clear that effective problem solving is far from “common sense”.

Finally, how often do we implement a “solution” to a problem, only to discover that the problem has not, in fact, been solved. Few organisations have adequate processes in place to monitor the effectiveness of solutions. Instead, all solutions are assumed to be effective, unless proven otherwise – which proof, of course, usually occurs at the most inopportune moments.

So clearly, effective problem solving is more than “common sense”. However effective problem solving is a skill that can be learnt

Teaching effective problem solving

The first step in this learning should be to “unfreeze” the misconception that effective problem solving is just “common sense”, and should cover:

  • the need for better problem-solving,
  • where their current problem-solving skills may be lacking, and
  • allow participants to realise that the shortage of these skills is widespread – not just limited to a few individuals

 Second, the training should cover a process for effective problem solving which:

  • Emphasises the need for identification of a broad range of contributing causes to problems
  • Ensures that problem solving is more than just a hunt for the “guilty”
  • Ensures that both causes and solutions have strong factual supporting evidence
  • Allows a structured approach to problem solving

There are a number of Root Cause Analysis training courses that satisfy these requirements. However, it has been our experience that, for most organisations, training their workforce in Root Cause Analysis is necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure that more effective problem solving practices are implemented.

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