Developing a Root Cause Analysis Work Process – Part 1

by Rick Kalinauskas

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Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is a valuable tool for reliability improvement in manufacturing and production operations. Yet, most efforts to implement an RCA program fail to achieve meaningful results despite significant investments in employee training. What needs to be done to assure that RCA becomes a functional work process in organizations?

If you are a manager of an organization or a frustrated RCA advocate and this sounds familiar, be assured that this is a common situation in many facilities and across all industries. Root Cause Analysis can be one of the most difficult reliability programs to develop, and many have struggled with their implementations.

In my opinion, Root Cause Analysis is currently one of the most underutilized reliability and quality improvement tools available for organizations seeking to eliminate failures and reduce manufacturing costs. Virtually all manufacturing organizations can benefit from having an effective RCA program. Most will agree that it is vital for continuous improvements.

Yet, there are few organizations that have achieved the level of excellence in RCA where it is routinely used to continually improve overall facility performance. In most cases, RCA, if done at all, is used in the case of major production loss events, damage to assets, or in reaction to a crisis situation within the organization.

In these instances, the need to perform RCA is typically driven by the urgent demand within the organization to “know why this happened so it can be understood by others, usually senior – – management. Most of us have experienced this urgency situation at some point in our careers, and have seen how effective problem solving is when focused and given priority.

Unfortunately, this application of Root Cause Analysis does not constitute a work process for improvement. In most cases, the outcome of this analysis is focused on preventing a recurrence of this single event. This does not constitute strategic improvement; it is a short-term activity addressing only one issue.

The Need for a Work Process To better understand why Root Cause Analysis is not fully utilized, we need to review the basic concepts of Organizational Work Processes. A work process is a system that provides a frame work for organizations to accomplish tasks in a repeatable, consistent manner. An example of a work process is the payroll function.

Each pay period, there are activities that are driven by organizational objectives and timelines. There are clear expectations for the outcomes of these activities, and individual roles and responsibilities have been defined for all participants. A “system” is in place to insure that things get done in a defined and predictable manner.

Without getting too conceptual in our discussion on work systems, it becomes apparent that most RCA programs do not have the benefit of a work process such as that described above. In many cases in an RCA program, it is unclear what is to be done, – – when it is to be done, who will do it and how corrective action  will be initiated. Most organizations assume that RCA training is all that is required for individuals to be successful in their efforts.

In reality, those who have had RCA training are usually unable to be effective in the absence of a work process. At best, the success of these individuals will be limited to areas where they can exert their personal influence in obtaining time and resources to correct true root causes. While some individuals have been successful using RCA to eliminate problems at the root cause level, in most cases it is difficult to do without organizational support.

Additionally, those who attempt RCA activities as individuals will usually experience conflict with others who are not aware of their objectives for doing RCA. The reasons for this lie in organizational culture, which has been defined as “observable patterns of behavior that have been positively reinforced over time.”

Most organizations are focused on urgent, task-orientated activities. These “cultures” have encouraged individual participation in efforts to accomplish short -term objectives. Root Cause Analysts focus on improvement issues that may not be viewed as urgent or important by others. As such, analysts’ daily work priorities will be questioned by some who may see these individuals as “not helpful.”

This is a very common situation where individuals in a given department have been trained to do RCA but no overall organizational agenda exists for improvement. Management begins to view the participants in these conflicts as “problem employees,” when the true cause of the conflict is the absence of work processes and the lack of defined goals and roles for those involved.

Many RCA advocates experience the frustration of this conflict situation and lose enthusiasm for RCA. In my opinion, this is why RCA training usually fails to deliver long-term results, and most programs end up faltering.

Rick Kalinauskas, CMRP, is President of Reliability Support Services, an educational consulting firm focused on helping organizations develop their Root Cause Analysis capabilities for achieving cost reductions and strategic improvements. He is an ardent proponent of RCA application and is a specialist in performing Root Cause Analysis for clients in manufacturing and industry.

Rick has over 20 years experience in the application of structured problem solving methodologies as part of his 30 years of involvement in manufacturing. He has a particular focus on the behavioral and work process aspects of reliability improvement. Rick has served in several maintenance and operations management roles with Nestle USA, as reliability engineering manager for International Paper, as an Asset Care Program Manager for Coors Brewing Co., and as a corporate reliability specialist in Root Cause Analysis for Halliburton KBR. He has worked with several clients in the oil and gas and pharmaceutical industries as well.

Rick resides in Chesapeake, Virginia with his wife Mary.

He can be contacted at 757-646-4128 or email: [email protected]

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