Root Cause Analysis
Receiving a Corrective Action Request (CAR) is common for teams working in an earned value management environment. Government contractors and other project teams working on large scale projects where EV certification is necessary will find that CARs come across their desk from time to time.
We’ve written before about how to respond to a corrective action. A key part of the response plan is to carry out a thorough root cause analysis (which you’ll often see abbreviated as RCA). But what does it mean to do that, and what should you be looking for?
In this article, we’ll explain what is a root cause analysis and how it fits into earned value management.
Uncovering the real problem
Root cause analysis is an in-depth investigation into what caused a particular situation. It goes beyond the ‘sticky plaster’ or quick fix and gets the root of the issue: hence the name.
Of course, some problems might be resolved with a quick fix. If you’ve made a mistake in a formula, or reports are pulling the wrong data set, then these are easy to fix when the problem is known. The RCA approach is used when the issue is more challenging and there are perhaps several inputs that resulted in the situation.
RCA helps the team uncover the real, underlying reasons why a problem happened so they can be fixed. You are looking for a solution that will stop it from happening again – not a patch to fix the symptom.
Root Cause Analysis in 5 steps
There are 5 steps for carrying out an RCA.
1. Recognize the problem
First, as a team there needs to be recognition that there is a problem. That should be obvious if you have received a CAR. The customer’s review team will have identified that there is a problem, and have approached you to resolve it.
The CAR you receive will state the problem and set the expectation that the situation needs to be resolved. There may be ‘clues’ in the CAR that will provide a starting point for your internal work.
2. Collect data
Next, collect a range of data points that will help uncover all factors around the problem. For example, you could gather:
- Feedback from users
- Copies of reports and the underlying data feeding into the reports
- Meeting minutes
- Software configuration.
It’s likely that you’ll need input from a number of people on the project and across the PMO or organization. Make sure they are aware of the requirement on their time so they are ready to support as and when required.
3. Identify the factors that caused the problem
Use the data collected to dig into the factors that influenced or contributed to the problem. We like Six Sigma techniques like the 5 Whys and Ishikawa diagrams (otherwise known as fishbone diagrams) as they can be useful to structure the thought process and help the team look beyond an obvious solution.
However, if you think there are likely to be several causes or factors influencing project performance, it’s worth using a couple of different techniques to investigate. One of the limitations of 5 Whys is that it can lead the team down to one root cause without considering the bigger picture. Techniques like Failure Mode and Effects Analysis or Cause and Effect Analysis would provide a broader framework for investigating issues that could have had multiple inputs.
This exercise needs to be in-depth, so allocate enough time to do it. Quality management processes by their nature tend to typically only review a subset of data. There is rarely enough time to review every Control Account, report or process. Sometimes mistakes happen. The RCA process should unfold in enough time to do a quality job of uncovering the issues. Make sure the team has ring-fenced time to do this, and if necessary, bring in expert earned value contractors to support.
Contractors will have seen plenty of CARs in the past and have experience of asking the right questions to uncover the real problem.
4. Craft a summary
When the influencing factors are known, summarize the problem and what caused it. This statement should be as long as it needs to be to make the situation clear. For example, there could be many factors that contributed to the problem. Perhaps poor decision making was exacerbated by an unrealistic schedule, or the quality analyst being out of the office at the time the decision was made. Perhaps data was presented but not believed, or an out-of-date report was used instead of the most recent version.
In our experience, the root cause is often a blend of factors that include technical errors and organizational culture or leadership.
The summary should be a written report that outlines the situation and any contributing factors. It’s used as an input for the next step: writing the corrective action plan.
5. Put together a corrective action plan
Finally, with a full understanding of the situation you can put together a corrective action plan. Whether you have carried out the analysis in-house or used expert third party resources, you still have to respond to the CAR with a full and thorough plan.
Be transparent about the issues uncovered so the customer has a reasonable understanding of what was causing the problem. The better documented the plan, the more confidence the customer will have in your ability to implement it and avoid the same issue in the future.
When the corrective action plan is ready, it can be shared with the customer and put into practice to address the issues in the CAR.