My "best practices" column series has discussed aspects of failure prevention (Part 1), life cycle cost and engineering (Part 2), and practical condition monitoring (Part 3). This article will discuss what is traditionally called root cause analysis (RCA) and spell out common pitfalls that I've observed in this area.

Pointing to the obvious: Many reactive organizations conclude that RCA is the first agenda item for improving reliability. But after completing a few root cause activities, it's obvious that the results will point to already-known problem areas, such as inferior preventive maintenance (PM) and planning and scheduling. The initial reasoning to start an RCA initiative often follows this train of thought: We have a lot of equipment breakdowns, so . . . step one should be to analyze those breakdowns in order to . . . identify the root cause of the breakdowns in order to . . . eliminate the root causes.

It sounds logical and reasonable when presented this way, but if basic PMs and planning and scheduling aren't in place, most RCAs will point to these deficiencies. Typical outcomes of analyses fall on the wrong amount or type of lubrication, shaft misalignment, unbalanced equipment, missed inspections and overhauls. The "human" or "process" causes often relate to poorly planned work orders.

If your organization is on this track, first consider implementing basics in PM and planning and scheduling. The improvements will free up resources due to less emergency work and better planned work. It is then at this time that you fully implement a solid RCA process.

Implement and eliminate: IDCON renamed its RCA process RCPE, for root cause problem elimination, to emphasize the importance of the result we want from root cause activities. The point isn't to analyze the problems; instead, it's to eliminate them.

The solutions to problems should result in work orders that are prioritized, planned, scheduled and executed. Other results can be business process changes, revisions to engineering standards and PM updates. In other words, the root cause process must be set up to automatically feed into the planning and scheduling system. There must also be processes for an interface with engineering, purchasing and leadership.

Involve the people: Front-line personnel (hourly workers and first-level managers) should do the initial phases of the RCPE. In 80 to 90 percent of the cases, the front line will carry out and solve the problems if management set the process up in that manner. However, it's common to see separate groups assigned to problems many hours after the event took place. Extra groups and resources should be the second step only if the front line can't take out the problem.

This doesn't mean I suggest some type of abbreviated version of RCA; it simply suggests a first effort to problem elimination. Problems often can be easily solved in the early going. They can be very difficult to solve as time passes.

Managers must build in an RCA time allowance for hourly people to enable them to solve problems at their discretion. Perhaps start by letting operators and hourly maintenance solve problems one hour per day during their equipment inspection rounds.

Thinking is required: Many root cause trainers spend most of the training time explaining how to draw cause and effect, fishbone or logic tree diagrams. While these are good tools for organizing information, they aren't the heart of good problem-solving. Elaborate graphs also tend to scare off some front-liners.

The primary focus in RCPE should be the use of critical and creative thinking. Use critical thinking to evaluate problem statements, data, facts and possible causes, and in logical reasoning. Use creative thinking when developing ways to find more information, craft possible solutions and verify selected solutions.

Once the creative and critical thinking process is understood, it may be a good idea to introduce a tool for information organization. It's not uncommon, though, for a simple list of facts and possible solutions to be enough.

Summary: To wrap this topic up . . .

  • Root cause results are greatly enhanced if basic planning and scheduling and PMs are established first.

  • Root cause should focus on eliminating the problems rather than only analyzing them.

  • The front-line organization will solve many problems if processes are in place.

  • Trainers often spend too much time on traditional charting methods rather than on creative and critical thinking.

Torbjörn (Tor) Idhammar is partner and vice president of reliability and maintenance management consultants for IDCON Inc. His primary responsibilities include training and implementation support for preventive maintenance/essential care and condition monitoring, planning and scheduling, spare parts management, and root cause problem elimination. He is the author of “Condition Monitoring Standards” (volumes 1 through 3). He earned a BS in industrial engineering from North Carolina State University and an MS in mechanical engineering from Lund University (Sweden). Contact Tor at 800-849-2041 or e-mail
Management Consultants in Reliability and Maintenance – IDCON