This is the third article in a series of four where we will examine the following topics: 

A growing number of Root Cause Analysis (RCA) processes are being supported by RCA software.  We need to be careful not to oversell the benefits of software in effective problem solving – and in many cases, root cause analysis software actually has some disadvantages and drawbacks.

The first thing we need to realise is that effective problem-solving through Root Cause Analysis techniques represents, for most organisations, a significant change in their way of thinking, and also represents a significant cultural shift. These fundamental changes cannot be effectively brought about simply by purchasing a software package, and yet many technocratic organisations are tempted to believe that a technological solution (such as a piece of software) will solve their problems.

RCA notepad 4

Second, if conducting Root Cause Analysis requires the presence of software (and associated access to a PC or terminal), then you are probably missing out on a large number of opportunities for problem solving that could be applied by your tradesmen/technicians/mechanics and supervisors while they are in the field. There are generally many smaller problems that can be solved more or less immediately, simply through the use of a simple, but effective Root Cause Analysis problems solving process and a pocket notebook. Shopfloor personnel are unlikely to use a process that requires them to log on to a terminal – and if they do use this process, it is likely to be some time after the event, rather than at the most appropriate time – when the problem has arisen.

Third, many software-based root cause analysis tools involve some form of “Categorisation” problem solving process.  The software prompts the user to think about problem causes using some form of hierarchical outline or “pick list” which users use to identify problem causes (and solutions).  The problem here is that causes are not categories, and that there are an infinite number (and number of levels) of causes.  A predefined hierarchy is likely to represent the biases of whoever created the categorisation scheme, and this may not reflect, or include, the causes that are relevant to the problem being solved.  Even worse, these predefined hierarchies or “pick lists” often focus almost exclusively on the Physical Causes of failures (because these are the easiest to categorise), yet as we discussed earlier, the most effective solutions are those which deal with Organisational or Latent Causes (which are much harder to categorise without being overly generic). Finally, because this categorisation scheme is contained in a computer program, it frequently carries a higher level of “authority” than it deserves.  Certainly, most of these computer programs provide the capability to add additional causes to their lists, but experience says that most people will restrict their thinking to those causes that are contained in the software.  As a result, the solutions being developed will be suboptimal, while simultaneously giving the illusion of precision, as a result of having been developed using a computer. 

Having said that, there is value in recording the results of past root cause analysis analyses for future reference – but this can generally be achieved using readily available software tools, such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Visio without having to resort to specialist RCA software.

In the final article in this series we will examine how to create the organisational environment for Root Cause Analysis success.

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