4 Best Practices for Root Cause Analysis

As failures are a common part of any system’s lifecycle - what would be the Root Cause Analysis for this type of problem? If you build and deploy a system, there are high chances that you'll have to deal with a failure in the near future. However, what matters is how you handle such failures. As an organization, you need to have pre-formulated strategies to handle failures as and when they occur.

Root cause analysis is one of such well-tested strategies to help you handle issues as they occur. Root cause analysis focuses on determining the root cause of a problem before working towards a solution. It also considers the possibility of this error rocking again in the future and implements measures to prevent that. This guide will take a look at what root cause analysis is, why you need it, and how you can implement it the best.

Without further ado, let's begin!

You can use these links to navigate the guide easily:

What is Root Cause Analysis?

As mentioned before, root cause analysis is a strategy that aims to solve problems in such a way that they do not occur again in the future. Root cause analysis focuses on finding and fixing the root cause of a problem rather than suppressing its effects.

Types of Root Cause Analysis

There are various ways in which you can carry out a root cause analysis. Here are some of the most popular ones:

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys method focuses on asking five or more “why” questions to determine the reason behind an issue’s occurrence. This method helps to dive deeper into a problem and discover interrelated answers to the original “why” questions.

You should keep in mind that the “why” questions should be related to each other—they should not be completely random. The 5 Whys technique is popular due to its simplicity and the fact that anyone with a basic understanding of the system in question can carry out this method easily.

Pareto Chart

Pareto chart of Pareto analysis is based on the Pareto principle that states that 80% of the effects observed in a failing system occur from 20% of the actual causes. When using the Pareto chart to figure out the root cause of a problem your objective is to figure out the prominent causes lying in the system. This is done by Looking through and gaining insights from the data available at hand.

A rough way to do this is first to define your problem statement and create a list of possible causes for this issue. The next step is to create a bar graph in which each cause lies on the x-axis, and the y-axis estimates the impact of this cause on the problem at hand. Next, you can arrange the causes in decreasing order of impacts and determine the cause that you need to begin your resolution with. 

Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA)

You can use this method to determine failures and their causes at any level of system design. In this method, the failure mode is prioritized, and corrective measures are put in place to reduce the impact of the failure. The name suggests two aspects to look at—failure mode and effects analysis.

Failure mode focuses on determining various ways in which something can fail. Effects analysis focuses on determining the effect of each failure and its impact on the overall problem. FMEA is one of the premier ways of carrying out root cause analysis And is used by multiple companies to tackle problems.

Fishbone Diagram

Also known as the cause-and-effect diagram, this method is mostly preferred when the root cause of a problem is completely unknown. This method is known to look at all possible causes of a given problem in the system. 

You begin by drawing out a fish-shaped diagram in which the problem is placed at the head of the fish, and the possible causes are laid out as branches in the spine. You then proceed by looking at each branch of the diagram and discussing its possible causes and effects. This discussion is usually coupled with intense brainstorming.

Why is Root Cause Analysis So Critical?

Now that you understand the different ways in which root cause analysis can be carried out, it is important to understand why we need to carry it out. Shared below are some common reasons why root cause analysis can be useful in your issue resolution efforts.

Reduces Time Spent in Solving the Problem

One of the biggest benefits that root cause analysis offers is that it reduces the time spent in solving a problem. Root cause analysis focuses on identifying the primary cause behind an issue. This ensures that you are not wasting your time in fixing things that do not have an impact on the main issue at hand.

Root cause analysis emphasizes finding as much information about the problem as possible. This helps you make an informed decision and ensure that you do not have to roll back changes later. 

Understanding the Root Cause Can Help Prevent Similar Issues in the Future

Many issues can have a larger underlying cause. This can add unnecessary load onto your development teams and have them working on the same problem again and again. Root cause analysis takes this into account.

Apart from solving the issue at hand, root cause analysis also focuses on preventing the occurrence of similar problems in the future. The solutions that you reach when implementing a root cause analysis consider the possibility of this issue occurring in the future and implement measures to ensure that it does not happen.

Prevents Burnout

Another common issue that on-call teams face is frequent burnout. Without a proper method of investigating an issue and formulating a solution, teams can often be running blindly and end up doing more work than they have to.

Root cause analysis defines multiple ways in which you can approach a problem. It provides your on-call teams with a guided way to look for relevant information and use it to formulate a solution. This helps to keep the team on track, save resources, and prevent unnecessary burnouts as well.

Best Practices for Conducting Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis is an important tool in determining the root cause of a problem and developing fixes that solve the problem at hand as well as prevent similar issues from happening in the future. However, if not done right, RCA can prove very costly and time-consuming. In some cases, it might not even return the right results forcing you to start again. Therefore here are some RCA best practices you should keep in mind to get the most out of your efforts.

Take Some Time To Understand the Complete Situation

The first step to carrying out any kind of analysis is to understand the situation at hand. You should begin by collecting as much data about the problem as possible. This includes identifying any possible suspects for the cause of the issue. You should keep in mind that there might be more than one root of the problem.

Your initial data gathering efforts should be focused on determining how and why the problem occurred. While you might be tempted to figure out who caused the issue, it is usually not of great help when solving the issue is your priority. The idea here is to focus on the issue and not the people.

Ensure that your data gathering efforts are methodical. Follow a documented process and look for concrete evidence with cause-effect pairs to identify and reinforce your arguments about possible root causes. The more clear and targeted your initial data is, the faster it will be for you to fix the problem at hand.

Go Big on Documentation

More often than not, people tend to forget things they have not written down yet. While it is usually not a big deal in day-to-day life, it can burn a huge hole in your pocket if you do so while conducting an RCA. 

Starting from the initial phase of gathering information about the problem to formulating a possible solution, always make sure to document each and every fact about the incident, no matter how small or insignificant it is. It can help your work in multiple ways:

Before Implementing a Solution, Double-Check Your Work So Far

Carrying out a Root Cause Analysis is a time and resource-intensive task. You should always double-check each step to ensure that you do not have to put in additional efforts to redo the process.

While beginning, ensure that your initial data gathering reports back up the need for a root cause analysis; If the initial data that you gather suggests that such an issue has occurred in the past or occurs commonly among your tech stack, you do not need to go through the hassle of detailed documentation and solution formation. You can simply put it down as a routine issue and use one of the common solutions.

Once you are certain that you have to go for Root Cause Analysis and you have a solution ready to be implemented, make sure to double-check it before you proceed with implementing it. This will help you make better decisions and not waste time rolling back changes that did not turn out to be helpful.

When trying out a solution, always look at and discuss its implementation cost before moving ahead. If needed, you should leverage visualization tools to make the most informed decision possible.

Experience and Training Go a Long Way

While you’re doing all of the above, make sure that you do it with people who have a sound knowledge of their fields. Since RCA is a time and resource-intensive method, you need to make sure that you are spending these resources on people who have the most chances of turning out successful. Prefer a team that has worked on such issues in the past over one that hasn’t.

If such a team is not available, try arranging training sessions for them when not working on live issues so that they may learn and grow in their roles. While handling an RCA level issue, ensure that everybody participating in the analysis activity shares their opinions and collectively decides they should implement the solution.

Need a More Efficient RCA Process?

RCA (Root Cause Analysis) is one of the best ways to solve an ongoing problem with an assurance that it will not occur in the foreseeable future. It is usually fast and reliable; however, it can cost you more than the average amount of resources. Hence making the right decision, in the beginning, is important.

In this guide, we showed you five common ways of implementing root cause analysis and also explained why you need root cause analysis to solve prominent issues in your systems. Finally, we ended with a few best practices for root cause analysis that leads to better results. for more of such content, check out the Scout APM blog. Scout APM offers performance monitoring solutions for your applications to help you figure out what’s going on under the hood. Scout offers a 14-day free trial that you can use to check out the tool in a production application.