Root Cause Analysis (RCA) Resource Center

Ten Barriers to Root Cause Analysis

These are 10 of the most common organizational or cultural barriers that Root Cause Analysis teams must contend with. Effective Root Cause Analysis requires understanding these barriers and then preventing or overcoming them as they present themselves.

This page lists each of the barriers to Root Cause Analysis, describes the barrier and suggests potential remedies that include the most obvious as well as the less obvious ways to overcome the hurdles to effective Root Cause Analysis.

  1. The problem is poorly or incorrectly defined.
  2. A systematic approach is not used.
  3. Investigations are stopped prematurely.
  4. Decisions are based on guesses, hunches or assumptions.
  5. An inadequate level of detail is employed.
  6. Interim containment fixes are sometimes allowed to become “permanent.”
  7. The skills, knowledge and experience needed to uncover the root cause are not available.
  8. A lack of organizational will to tackle the “bigger” issues.
  9. Fear of being blamed.
  10. “I don’t have the time.”

#1 | The problem is poorly or incorrectly defined.

Description of Barrier:

With a poorly or incorrectly defined problem, different people on the team may have different interpretations of what the problem is or the entire team could march off in the completely wrong direction solving something that isn’t even a problem.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedy: Use a standardized Problem Statement Worksheet to define and communicate the problem to be tackled.

Less obvious remedy: Each team member articulates the problem in his/her own words and/or have people from outside of the team review the problem statement worksheet.

#2 | A systematic approach is not used.

Description of Barrier:

An unfocused, random approach to RCA can lead to premature conclusions without data to back them up, revisiting the same issue again and again, dead end paths and wasted time.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedy: Use a structured process for root cause analysis with corrective action

Less obvious remedy: At regular intervals, review where you are at in the process and/or have someone from outside of your team perform an informal audit of your progress.

#3 | Investigations are stopped prematurely.

Description of Barrier:

The problem with stopping before you find the REAL root cause is that the solution will only be a Band-Aid at best. If you don’t solve a problem at its source, it WILL come back to haunt you.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedies: Ask the root cause question: Does this cause explain all that we know about what the problem is, as well as all we know about what the problem isn’t? Or use the Five-Whys technique to make sure the cause identified is really the source. Or, verify and validate the solution.

Less obvious remedy: Ask: Will eliminating this root cause make it IMPOSSIBLE for this problem to happen again?

#4 | Decisions are based on guesses or assumptions.

Description of Barrier:

While opinions (without facts) can help point you in the direction of a decision, making decisions without data can be risky and may lead the team on a wild goose chase.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedies: Make fact-based decisions; ask yourselves, “What data do we have that gives us confidence that this is the right decision?”

Less obvious remedies: Make a written argument citing factual reasons that you believe your decision is a good one. If you have a hard time coming up with the facts, then you probably are not making a fact-based decision. Or use a Cause and Effect (fishbone) Diagram showing the decision as the output and then listing the supporting facts on branches.

#5 | An inadequate level of detail is employed.

Description of Barrier:

Problem-solving and data collection can yield a huge amount of information that can be difficult and tedious to plow through. However, the true root cause may be obscured by a lot of other irrelevant or less important data so digging deep into a problem with attention to detail can mean the difference between solving the problem or completely missing the mark.

Potential Remedy:

Obvious remedies: Confirm that your team is working through each problem-solving step and not jumping ahead to the solution

Less obvious remedy: Refer to the flowchart for the process and review each step in the process to make sure that each is well understood.

#6 | Interim containment fixes become “permanent.”

Description of Barrier:

Sometimes, interim containment “hides” the problem effect “taking the pressure off” of getting to the root cause.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedy: Regardless of the problem-solving model you are using, don’t stop short when the problem appears to go away; be sure to complete the problem-solving cycle.

Less obvious remedies: Set an expiration date for the interim containment or set a date to review the status of the interim containment solution independent of the rest of the problem-solving process.

#7 | Skills, knowledge and experience are not available.

Description of Barrier:

Team members may not have the necessary skills, knowledge or experience to drill down to the root cause. Symptoms of this barrier includes an inability to use special programs to access and analyze data, a lack of detailed knowledge of the process and /or not appreciating the history of the problem, process and players involved.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedy: If an internal team does not have the skills and know-how needed, call upon an expert.

Less obvious remedies: Conduct an audit of team skills as they apply to the problem and then identify gaps and/or check internal Best Practices databases for potential solutions to similar problems.

#8 | Lack of organizational will to tackle “bigger” issues.

Description of Barrier:

Tough-to-solve problems require support from management in the form of resources, access to information, and an open mind to solutions. Without a strong organizational will to tackle big issues, teams may become frustrated and not take their task seriously.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedies: Assign management level “champions” to RCA projects and get management to “sign-on” to the problem statement before the team proceeds further with the project.

Less obvious remedy: Communicate the benefits of RCA in the language of management: Time and Money

#9 | Fear of being blamed.

Description of Barrier:

Root cause analysis will uncover problems with the existing system that someone, at some point, put in place. It is easy to point fingers when you start to get close to the root cause of a problem and that finger pointing could intimidate team members to the point that they cover up the real problem for fear of being blamed for it.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedies: Focus on problems with the PROCESS and not the people in the process and have people who created the problem process serve as resources to the team rather than being team members.

Less obvious remedy: Create an amnesty pact where the team agrees that no person will be blamed for past problems.

#10 | “I don’t have the time.”

Description of Barrier:

Most people spend at least part of their day doing something that they wouldn’t have to do if a chronic problem was fixed. As the saying goes, there is always time to do it over, but there is never time to do it right the first time.

Potential Remedies:

Obvious remedies: Quantify what living with the problem is costing in both time and money and at the start of the RCA process, set realistic time requirements for project members as well as deadlines for project completion.

Less obvious remedies: Explore the impact of recurring errors from your customer’s viewpoint; for really tough problems use an immersion (or Kaizen Event) approach to solving the problem where team members take a day or more away from their regular job duties to completely focus on the problem.