Tools for Root Cause Analysis
We work with a lot of companies who are going through the process of earned value management certification and who need to evidence that their system is set up to identify issues and act on them. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) is one of the main techniques that contractors need to have in place so they can act quickly when a variance is identified.
We’ve written a lot in the past about post-contract support, variance reporting and corrective action plans and today we turn our attention to how you actually do root cause analysis and what tools help the team uncover the real problems affecting your earned value management processes.
There are 5 lean management tools we’re going to look at today. These are the tools most often used by project professionals and have applications beyond earned value systems. They’ll serve you well for the vast majority of issues where RCA exercises are required.
1. The 5 Whys
The 5 Whys is one of the most popular lean production tools to come out of Japanese manufacturing systems and is commonly used to help get to the root cause of any problem.
It’s simple: get the team together and ask why the problem happened. That might be enough, but often it’s essential to get further into the problem by asking ‘why’ again and again until you reach a natural stopping point. You may uncover the real root cause before you have asked ‘why’ five times, or you may take more. Either way, at some point you will reach an answer where it makes sense to stop. This is likely to be the last sensible thing you could do to address the problem before you start getting into existential discussions about why the universe is the way it is!
2. Ishikawa Diagrams
Ishikawa diagrams are also called fishbone diagrams because of how they look. You start with a problem written where the fish’s head would be. Then add a horizontal line for the fish’s spine. Off the spine, draw fish bones that each represent something that contributes to the cause of the problem. You can add sub-fishbones to represent sub-causes and annotate the diagram as required until you’ve identified a range of inputs that contribute to the issue.
This is a very visual and interesting way to record cause and effect. Many online whiteboarding tools will either have templates or make it easy for you to collaborate virtually so the team can work together creating the diagram. It’s always a good idea to involve a team in root cause analysis because everyone sees problems from a slightly different angle and a breadth of input will help you get to the root cause more quickly.
3. Failure Mode and Effect Analysis
FMEA is more of a preventative approach, but it can be used creatively to look at problems. It analyses the performance of a system and results in calculating a risk priority number that draws on failures and potential risks to the system. It looks at the severity, occurrence and detection of those failure modes.
The goal is to identify where a system might fail, and it starts from the assumption that it will fail. If you have real data about failures this can serve as an input, but you can also think creatively about what might happen to prompt a failure in the future. The risk priority numbers are then used to prioritize the problems to make decisions about which to fix first.
4. Pareto charts
If you are working in an environment where defects can be identified and numerated, then Pareto analysis might work for you. Similar to FMEA, it’s a way of prioritizing which issues have the greatest impact on performance.
Pareto charts work well where there is a large data set to analyze and categorize. They show the frequency of distribution of defects.
Let’s say that equipment on site is regularly breaking down. An analysis of the engineering reports identifies that some of the breakdowns are caused by electrical errors, some by failure to follow the shutdown process correctly and a couple by people putting the wrong raw materials into the machine. The Pareto chart puts that data into a visual format. It shows that in order to address the majority of issues, the electrical faults should be fixed first. The team can address the major cause of failure, and then go on to address the other reasons.
5. Scatter diagrams
Many project management tools can create scatter diagrams or scatter plot graphs. These show two variables which are plotted along two axes. The idea of displaying data points in this way is to identify correlation between the data.
All of these tools are helpful, but remember in an EVMS environment, the goal is to approach the analysis from a perspective of how it addresses the earned value issues. Keep bringing the conversation back to that. Make sure the team spends adequate time addressing what part of the EVM system was not working correctly and allowed an error to creep in. Perhaps it is a process that wasn’t fully thought-through, a process that should exist that hasn’t yet been implemented, or some other gap in the ways of working that allowed performance variation to sneak in.
Use specialist resources
Another option is to bring in expert external contractors or use specialist in-house resources. Experts who are trained in Lean, Six Sigma or ISO9000 techniques can bring other tools and strong facilitation skills to problem solving as you go deeper into the causes of failure.
Whatever approach you take – and you can use several – make sure all the relevant stakeholders are involved and you work collaboratively. With the right people in the room, the right facilitation and expertise, you can get to the bottom of any challenge.