The Root Cause Just isn’t that Important
by Torbjorn Idhammar
Root cause analysis and root cause failure analysis are commonly used terms. I have always felt that these terms are somewhat misguided. I say so for some really simple reasons.
First, there is not really such a thing as a “root cause” to a problem. If you try to find a definition for “root cause”, you will find a mix of homegrown attempts, but all of them are general or unclear in nature. Here is an example: “A root cause is an initiating cause of a causal chain which leads to an outcome or effect of interest”. Aside from being wrong, it is quite a bunch of incomprehensive verbiage. The problem with definitions like these is that it is never, in the real world, possible to prove a single event that solely initiates a whole chain of other events. This is because there are always other events before the so-called “root cause event”. This may seem like semantics, but for problem-solvers, it is important to keep in mind that there never is a silver-bullet answer.
Second, is the root cause really that important? In my opinion, the process we call root cause failure analysis should be used to implement solutions. That is the whole idea, isn’t it? - to find and implement SOLUTIONS! If we think logically in reverse and ask, “Do we always have to know the root causes to find great solutions?” Absolutely not!
An example: A plant has problems with failing bearings in most of its rotating equipment. After a quick look, we find out that equipment isn’t aligned; there are no lubrication routes set up, no clean oil storage, and no sealed storage for spare bearings. Do we need to do a root cause on each bearing and find out the exact root causes of each one? No. Let’s not spend time and money on the root cause of hundreds of bearings. Let’s work on solutions that we know will improve the problems. Sure, there may be other contributing factors, but the above will be the most pressing.
Many people that get excited in root cause become too details oriented and lose sight of the big picture and the economics of things.
So, in summary, there is no such thing as “a root cause”, and we need to focus more on implementing solutions based on a practical root cause analysis.