RCA (Root Cause Analysis) is a powerful technique that helps you understand why aspects of your earned value management system are not working as expected. As part of responding to a corrective action request, the project team will carry out an RCA exercise to identify what caused the failure.
There are various tools you can use to do this, and the important thing is to get to the real cause, not a superficial cause. You want to identify something that – if fixed – would ensure that the error could not happen again.
In our experience, there are common reasons that cause failure. When your RCA is complete, you will probably find that the cause falls into one of these three categories:
Let’s look at each of those in turn.
Physical causes are tangible failures in equipment, plant, machinery or software. For example, a software package doesn’t work on the client’s installation because they are running a different version to you. Or a piece of heavy machinery had a component failure and was out of action for several weeks.
These reasons seem straightforward, but when you start diving into the detail, there could be other reasons at play. In the case of machine failure, for example, why did the machine fail? Is it because the maintenance schedule was not followed and the machine had not passed routine inspections? Take some time to go beyond physical failures and try to identify what contributed to that happening, whether that is staff training, processes or other issues.
Fix by: Replacing the failed component, upgrading software, using different components or software.
Human causes come down to people doing something wrong. Someone failed to follow a process or human error was introduced into the system. Often there isn’t a lot you can do beyond making sure the individual in question, and anyone else in a similar role, has adequate support and training for their job.
The good news is that human causes can be relatively straightforward to fix. The onboarding process for the program can include training, you can buddy up people with a more experienced colleague, and send team members on project management training to give them greater confidence in their role.
Fix by: Training, making the process easier to follow, providing user instructions and support, automation to avoid human error, add in quality checks by an experienced team member.
Organizational causes can be culture-driven or as a result of an enterprise factor that is not suitable. For example, a process has a step that is not required or is inaccurate, making it impossible to follow the process, or if the process is followed, the end result is not what is expected.
Sometimes it’s easy to spot these errors and they can be addressed by simply reworking a procedure document. However, in some cases they can be down to corporate culture and ways of working: those issues tend to take longer to unpick and resolve.
The most successful businesses operate as learning organizations where they are open to continuous improvement and feedback from employees at all levels. Working towards a culture of transparency and trust goes a long way to being able to identify organizational causes because people need to be able to raise issues with ways of working without feeling like they are exposing themselves to repercussions.
Fix by: Improving the process, replacing faulty elements of organizational systems, building psychological safety across teams.
The three categories above are broad, and are presented as considerations for you as you work through the RCA process. However, don’t pre-judge what the outcome of the RCA may be.
In our experience working with clients who are going through the earned value management certification process, we do see these common causes underpin a lot of issues raised as a result of corrective action requests. But there is always something that might fall outside the boundaries of these categories. If you go into the root cause exercise with an open mind, you could uncover obscure but important reasons why something isn’t working as expected.
Resolving causes of failure
The ‘fix by’ solutions in the sections above are simply ideas for things to consider as you review the output of the RCA. Tailor your responses to ensure that the issue is fully resolved – and that you aren’t only fixing the symptoms. Remember that you may need to apply more than one solution. For example, changing a procedure, aligning software codes to match the new procedure and also training staff on how to use the amended procedure.
Build checks into your follow up process so you can assure yourself and others that the root cause has been adequately addressed and is not (or cannot) reoccur.
The more you work with US Government contracts that require earned value management compliance, the more you will come across corrective action requests and the plans that go alongside them. Being able to carry out effective root cause analysis is essential if you want to provide a robust, considered response to a request and give your client confidence that you can address the issues raised.