What Is Root Cause Analysis? | Definition & Examples

Root Cause Analysis

Root cause analysis is a problem-solving approach that uses the analogy of roots and blooms to model cause-and-effect relationships. Rather than focusing on what’s above the surface, root cause analysis troubleshoots solutions to problems by analysing what is causing them.

Note
Similarly to exploratory research, it’s important to remember that root cause analysis does not provide solutions to problems. Rather, it’s one method within a larger problem-solving landscape.

Just like roots diverge below the surface of a plant, root cause analysis allows us to see the many potential causes of a problem lying below the surface. Rather than focusing on singular explanations for problems, the analogy of roots branching out can show us a problem’s many potential causes, helping us move forward in strategising potential solutions.

Root cause analysis is a form of quality management, often used in organisational management, quality control, and in healthcare fields like nursing. Root cause analysis can be a helpful study tool for students, too, when used for brainstorming or memorisation exercises.

Root cause analysis template

It’s easy to draw root cause analysis charts by hand, on a whiteboard or a big piece of paper. Many people use fishbone diagrams as well, or you can download our template below.

Root cause analysis template

Template

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The ‘5 Whys’ of root cause analysis

One of the most common ways to conduct root cause analysis is using the ‘5 Whys’ method, popular in lean management. The 5 Whys are an interconnected method of analysis: after defining your problem, you ask ‘why?’  and answer as concisely as possible. The first ‘why’ often leads to the second, which leads to the third, etc.

In short, you continue to ask ‘why’ until the answer provided is no longer a contributor to the broader issue, but a possible solution to that issue. In other words, as you strategise, you’ll sense it’s time to stop when a provided answer has the potential to stop the whole problem from occurring, rather than only one aspect of that problem. This often takes 3-5 ‘whys’ but can definitely stretch out for longer.

You can use this template to map out your whys.

5 Whys template

Template

Advantages and disadvantages of root cause analysis

Root cause analysis is a great way to organise your thoughts, but its simplicity leads to a few downsides.

Advantages

  • Great brainstorming tool for individual or group projects.
  • Can help identify causal relationships and clarify relationships between variables.
  • ‘5 whys’ system can help simplify complex issues and drive possible solutions.

Disadvantages

  • Can be overly simplistic, not leaving much room for nuance or variations.
  • Path dependence can occur if the wrong question is asked, leading to incorrect conclusions.
  • Cannot provide answers, only suggestions, so best used in the exploratory research phase.

Frequently asked questions

What are some tools used for root cause analysis?

There are several common tools used for root cause analysis, the most popular of which include fishbone diagrams, scatterplots, and the ‘5 whys’.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students.