Integrating Root Cause Analysis With Continuous Improvement  

Root Cause Analysis (RCA) Programs are an integral aspect of continuous improvement. By following these 8 Steps to Perform an Effective Root Cause Analysis, organizations can effectively uncover and address the root causes of issues.

Here are the key steps to kicking off and performing effective RCAs:

  1. Track & Trend Issues and Initiate RCAs for Events and Negative Trends:

    In the spirit of continuous improvement, organizations must continually monitor performance and document gaps in performance (i.e., deviations, non-compliance with requirements, non-conformance with specifications, etc.) in a tracking system.


    The tracking system should be trended periodically to identify negative performance trends. When a problem or event reaches a certain threshold, an RCA is requested by management.

    Periodic trend reports can also highlight negative trends to management, and a proactive RCA can be initiated to identify the deep-seated causes of the negative trend, before these same causes bypass our line of defenses and causes more significant problems. Once a decision is made to initiate an RCA, the following steps below apply.

  2. Define the Problem: 

    A good Problem Statement determines the direction of the RCA and keeps the team on the right path.

    Problem statements should accurately focus on the problem to be solved and should not be crafted before enough information is available.

    For example, what happened, who was involved, where did it take place, when did it take place or timeframe, how did it happen, and the impact or magnitude of the problem.

    Lastly, a problem statement should not speculate or point to potential causes.

  3. Gather and Organize Evidence and Data:

    An excellent practice is to have a process for rapidly gathering information after an event, or at the start of a problem investigation.


    These are often called “fact finding sessions” or “critiques.” The more accurate information we can gather and organize, the higher the quality of our investigation.

    In general, obtain information from the personnel involves, and the applicable line of defenses that are in place to prevent the problem you are investigating (i.e. the administrative requirements, the physical barriers, and the cybersecurity measures).

  4. Analyze the Evidence and Data and Generate Lines of Inquiry Questions: 

    One of the greatest misconceptions about RCA is the difference between data analysis and causal analysis.


    In general, if the tool or method does not conduct cause & effect analysis, then it is data analysis. Data analysis is conducted first: we organize information in many ways to better analyze it, including timelines, Pareto charts, process maps, fault trees, control charts, and any other tools and techniques that can be used to organize and analyze information in qualitative and quantitative manners.

    The results of our data analysis are performance insights, which can then be used to craft unbiased, evidence-based questions. These questions are the start of our lines of inquiry in the cause an effect analysis phase, which follows the data analysis phase.

  5. Conduct Cause & Effect Analysis to Identify the Deepest-Seated Root Causes: 

    Once we have analyzed the evidence, information and data and generated our lines of inquiry questions, the critical step in RCA is asking Socratic questions to get to the bottom of an issue.

    Many refer to Socratic questions as 5 Whys, but the 5 Whys was meant for manufacturing and we do not pay attention to the “5” when conducting modern day RCA.

    By following our lines of inquiry with Socratic questions, we will work our way down to the deepest-seated causes. In the vast majority of our operating environments, you will find that it is a group of root causes and contributing factors that managed to bypass our line of defenses, which are usually extensive.

  6. Develop Actions to Prevent Recurrence: 

    A major weakness in most Corrective Action Plans is that they focus exclusively on administrative solutions such as additional procedure requirements and training.

    By adopting more advances strategies such as Lean Mistake Proofing and the Hierarchy of Hazard Controls, we can develop corrective action plans that have a much higher likelihood of preventing recurrence.

    Note that because humans are the infinite variable in any problem, we should not expect to eliminate recurring problems with 100% certainty.

  7. Determine the Effectiveness of Corrective Actions:

    Effectiveness Reviews should be scheduled after sufficient time has passed to implement the corrective actions, to verify whether they are having a positive effect in preventing recurrence, and to confirm that new problems or unintended consequences were not introduced by the implementation of those corrective actions.

    In general, we establish an Effectiveness Review Plan that includes a method of verification (i.e. self-assessment, walkthrough, mock-up or simulation, document review, performance indicator monitoring, etc.), a defined timeframe to conduct the review, and the acceptance criteria.

  8. Continue to Monitor Performance: 

    To close the continuous improvement loop, organizations must continue to monitor performance and document gaps in performance (i.e., rinse, repeat). The most successful organizations are self-critical and document even minor infractions so they can be trended, analyzed and addressed before they turn into bigger problems.

These basic steps are essential to an effective RCA Program that leads to a deeper understanding of issues and facilitates meaningful solutions. RCA Programs are instrumental in driving continuous improvement and problem-solving within your organization.


About the Author:

Rob De La EspriellaBD3, CEO and Founder, BlueDragon IPS

Deming Prize winning team member and pioneering Nuclear Quality Assurance expert Rob De La Espriella draws from four decades of experience in the commercial nuclear power sector and the nuclear weapons complex to offer deep insights into Root Cause Analysis and Total Quality Management. Rob is a leading expert in solving complex human-centric problems in our modern work environments, and has re-defined how organizations solve complex problems with the BlueDragon Integrated Problem-solving System (IPS), the first universal problem-solving system that can be applied to all regulated industries.  Rob is a former nuclear submarine officer, a decorated Resident Inspector with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a senior manager at commercial nuclear power plants. He was also on the Florida Power & Light team that won the Deming Prize from Japan.  Since 2007, he has been a Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Energy and their contractors, helping solve some of their most complex issues.  Rob is a adjunct professor at Endicott College in Beverly, MA, and in 2023, he was accepted into the Forbes Business Council and is a Forbes contributor.

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