Blogpost-display-image_Tips for Performing a Successful Root Cause AnalysisRoot Cause Analysis: The Under-appreciated Hero

When implementing an IT Service Management (ITSM) system, I always look forward to spending time on root cause analysis (RCA). Of course Incident and Problem Management play the central role in ITSM design- it's crucial to give your teams, customers, and systems intuitive ways to communicate when something has gone wrong. However, it is equally important that organizations spend time identifying the key driver of these problems by performing an RCA to prevent them from reoccurring. This is because, at the end of the day, incidents and problems cost your organization money, and a good RCA can help save it. It's this viewpoint that has led me to dub RCA the under-appreciated hero of ITSM and in this post I will share with you the aspects of a successful RCA that can help vanquish problems once and for all. 

It's important to distinguish between Problem Management and Incident Management. In broad strokes: the goal of Problem Management is to get to root cause, and we can understand its goal to be increasing the meantime between failures by determining root cause of one or more incidents thereby addressing with appropriate change to prevent recurrence of the incident; in this sense it's a proactive approach. On the other hand, Incident Management's goal is to reduce the meantime to recovery by responding and resolving fast; its approach is reactive.

What is Root Cause Analysis?

The core function of root cause analysis is to uncover the core reason why a problem occurred. While there are many different tools and approaches to perform an RCA, I've consolidated the key steps into the diagram below: 

Root Cause Analysis Blog Post

  • Define the problem: First, make sure you and your teams align on "What happened?" and are speaking to the same problem.
  • Collect Data: Then, the focus needs to be "How did this happen?" and gathering data around the problem, whether customer testimony or incident reports.
  • Identify Casual Factors: Casual factors also help to answer "How did this happen," and in this step, teams should be guided to identifying fixable causes.
  • Identify the Root Cause: Next, teams should leverage one of the techniques of the RCA process, such as the "Five Whys," Fishbone Diagram, or Fault-Tree Analysis, to drive to the root cause of all the causal factors. 
  • Recommend and Test the Solution: After the root cause has been identified, teams should work to develop a solution that gets recommended to the Executive team for approval before testing can begin. Once approved, the solution should enter a testing phase, where it can be rolled back if not successful. 
  • Implement and Monitor: Once the solution is implemented, teams should continue to monitor it in the production environment to ensure that it is working as expected. This active analysis step is why RCA is depicted as a cycle; if the solution did not resolve the problem, it could be that the problem was a casual factor and the team needs to begin the RCA process again. 

Why Does It Matter?

I've worked with teams who have a well-defined RCA process and others who are just beginning. I reference this diagram when we focus on RCA because it helps to illustrate how simple of a process RCA can be. There aren't rigid guidelines or rules to follow; organizations can adopt their own RCA policies. What many don't realize, especially those who have yet to adopt RCA as a business process, is that it has a big pay-off: cost savings.

Root cause analysis can be a cost saving tool for organizations for a couple of reasons. First, identifying and acting on problems early saves money. The longer a problem goes on the more money it costs the organization, and a properly deployed RCA process is built to help organizations become more proactive rather than reactive. Second, the main goal of the RCA process is to prevent incidents from cropping up again. If the incident does not reoccur, then there won't be downtime or lost production, saving money in the long run.  

How Can I Help My Organization Embrace RCA?

When working with organizations to implement an RCA process, there are several aspects that I help coach my clients on which can help the organization embrace RCA. They are:

  1. Talk about what went well.....and what could have gone better
    1. When the team is starting the RCA process, guide them to start by discussing what happened and framing the problem. Then, go one step further and document what went well. This will provide you data and help to explain what is not the issue or what not to blame. It's equally important to talk about what could have gone better, as this will likely begin the discussion and documentation of your causal factors. 
  2. Make it work for you
    1. In some organizations, "Root Cause Analysis" can be viewed as too formal and intimidating. I've come across some resistance to them due to their structure or even the invitee list. For these reasons, it's important to make sure you're adopting a RCA structure that feels natural for your organization. This could mean:
      1. Being mindful of the attendees, especially if the invitees include senior management and above. Ensure you include the right people in the room at the right time. Your front line team has the most firsthand knowledge of the systems or processes, and you will want them to feel comfortable participating candidly in any discovery meetings. 
      2. Having a neutral party leading the meetings. The leader shouldn't have anything to gain by the results of the RCA process and should be able to maintain a "blame free" atmosphere.
      3. Reframing RCA as something more approachable, such as a "Lessons Learned meeting,"  where the RCA process is still followed, but in a less formal way. Feedback and idea can be gathered via sticky notes and shared on a board so that it is anonymous for example. 
  3. Root causes can only solve one problem
    1. Remember that the main goal of RCA is to avoid future incidents. Teams should not be applying a previous root cause to a current or future problem- if that is the case, then it indicates that rather than identifying the root cause, the team actually identified a casual factor. In these instances, I've coached teams to go back and take their RCA process one step deeper, for example asking another "Why" question if the "Five Whys" is used. 

The goal of Problem Management is to get to root cause. Incident Mgmt goal: reduce the meantime to recovery (by responding and resolving fast); reactive
Problem Mgmt goal: increase the meantime between failures (by determining root cause of one or more incidents thereby addressing with appropriate change to prevent recurrence of the incident); proactive.

Ultimately, where incidents and problems cost your organizations money, RCA saves it. It is for this reason that I think of RCA as an under-appreciated hero of ITSM. While the biggest barrier to accomplishing RCA can be time, putting in the time upfront to accomplish the RCA process will prevent repeat incidents from cropping up, saving your company time and resources in the long run. By implementing a few of these tips, I hope you come to appreciate RCA as I have, and if you have any questions let us know, we'd love to help. 

Mary Roper

Written by Mary Roper

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