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What is root cause analysis?

Root cause analysis describes the principles and methodologies for identifying the reasons behind problems so that they may be prevented or resolved.

The universe operates on a system of cause and effect. Every occurrence is the result of actions, situations, or events that preceded it. From the orbits of celestial bodies to the functioning of our daily technologies, there is a chain of reactions that can be traced and analyzed. By understanding the causes behind occurrences, we can gain critical insights into problems as they arise—and may even be able to prevent them before they occur.

This is extremely relevant in IT management. In modern information technology, where complex systems and processes are intertwined, understanding this cause-effect relationship can mean the difference between the success or failure of a business. Whether it's a system malfunction, a network failure, or a security breach, knowing the why and how is crucial to finding a solution. Root cause analysis (RCA) provides those answers.

Root cause analysis is a methodology designed to unearth the underlying factors of a problem. By identifying and addressing the core issues, rather than just treating the symptoms, this approach allows professionals to implement more lasting solutions. In the increasingly complex field of IT, where a minor glitch can quickly escalate into a major crisis, understanding and applying root cause analysis is vital. It's a process that not only diagnoses but also forecasts, enabling the more efficient and effective management of technology.

Root cause analysis has its origins in the early 20th century, particularly within the engineering and manufacturing industries. One of the early proponents of what would eventually become RCA was Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, who created the "Five Whys" technique to delve into problems by asking "Why?" successively until the fundamental cause was identified.

Today, RCA—as part of the broader field of total quality management (TQM)—has been embraced by a range of industries, including IT management. As technologies and processes become more intricate, the role of RCA in identifying and mitigating underlying problems is growing, becoming a cornerstone of modern problem-solving and continuous improvement practices.

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RCA is an essential tool for businesses seeking to thrive in an increasingly complex environment. Key reasons why conducting RCA is crucial include:

  • Problem identification
    RCA helps in identifying the underlying causes of a problem, not just the symptoms. By digging deeper, it uncovers the actual source, enabling more effective problem-solving.
  • Preventing recurrence
    By understanding the fundamental reason behind an issue, measures can be put in place to prevent the same problem from happening again in the future.
  • Improving processes
    RCA encourages a systematic approach to problem-solving. By dissecting processes and identifying weaknesses, it promotes continuous improvement within the organization.
  • Enhancing safety
    In industries where safety is paramount (such as healthcare and manufacturing), RCA can identify potential hazards and help in creating a safer working environment.
  • Building knowledge and skills
    The process of conducting RCA fosters critical thinking and analytical skills within the team. It creates a culture of learning and adaptability.
  • Customer satisfaction
    By proactively addressing and preventing issues, RCA helps in providing a more reliable product or service, thereby enhancing customer trust and satisfaction.
  • Regulatory compliance
    In certain industries, RCA may be a regulatory requirement to ensure adherence to safety and quality standards.
  • Strategic alignment
    RCA aligns problem-solving efforts with organizational goals, ensuring that solutions are consistent with the company's mission and objectives.

Simply put, root cause analysis serves as a vital instrument in an organization's toolkit for efficient problem management, continuous improvement, and sustainable growth. By identifying and addressing problems at their core, businesses can build a culture of excellence and resilience.

Root cause analysis is an integral component of the problem-solving process, but it must be applied at the right time. Understanding when to conduct RCA is essential for achieving meaningful results. The timing and context where RCA should be implemented include:

  • As part of situation analysis
    RCA should be conducted as a critical element of situation analysis. By analyzing the root cause of a problem simultaneously with assessing the overall situation, an organization gains a holistic view that helps them build more effective solutions.
  • During stakeholder discussions and workshops
    Engaging with stakeholders through discussions and workshops provides a collaborative platform for conducting RCA. It brings together diverse perspectives and insights, fostering a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes and potential solutions.
  • When recurring problems arise
    If an organization notices a pattern of recurring issues, it's a clear indication that the underlying root causes have not been addressed. In these cases, RCA is necessary to break the cycle and create sustainable solutions.
  • After critical incidents
    Following a significant incident or failure, RCA can be essential in understanding what went wrong. Employing RCA during postmortems and retrospectives helps in developing preventive measures to avoid similar occurrences in the future.
  • During continuous improvement initiatives
    Organizations committed to continuous improvement will often utilize RCA to proactively identify areas for enhancement. Proactive optimization likewise empowers businesses with a clearer understanding of the root causes of inefficiencies or weaknesses so they can make more-targeted improvements.
  • In response to regulatory needs
    Laws or industry standards may require an RCA, particularly in sectors where safety and quality are paramount. Conducting RCA in these instances ensures compliance and demonstrates a commitment to best practices.
  • When launching new projects or Initiatives
    Before undertaking a significant new project or initiative, conducting an RCA on potential risks or challenges can provide valuable insights. It helps shape strategies that are resilient and adaptive to the new endeavor's complexities.

Conducting a root cause analysis may require anywhere from several hours to a few months to complete; the time needed depends on the amount of data available, the clarity of the data, and whether further input from stakeholders or audiences may be necessary. It is also worth recognizing that RCA does not need to be limited to reactionary tasks following a problem or critical failure; it is also used in various stages of planning, collaboration, continuous improvement, and compliance to reduce—or even eliminate—many of the risks inherent in IT.

Conducting a root cause analysis is typically the task of a small, dedicated team, leveraging various skills and perspectives to delve into the underlying issues of a problem. The composition of the team will vary depending on the organization and the specific problem being analyzed, but often includes the following positions:

  • Communication staff
    These team members play a vital role in articulating the problem, defining the scope of the analysis, and ensuring that findings are communicated effectively within the organization. They help in bridging gaps between different departments and stakeholders.
  • Research staff
    If available, research staff can add tremendous value to RCA. With their ability to gather and analyze data, they can uncover trends, patterns, and insights that may be hidden from others. They often take the lead in quantifying the problem and assessing the impact of potential solutions.
  • Management
    While not always directly involved in the analysis, the support and involvement of management can be essential in providing the authority, resources, and strategic alignment needed for a successful RCA.
  • Other subject matter experts
    Depending on the problem, other experts related to the issue may be included, such as IT professionals for technology-related problems or quality assurance staff for product defects.

By pooling unique skills and insights, a combined RCA team is equipped to explore the problem from all angles and arrive at a solution that addresses the underlying cause. In a well-coordinated team, each member's contribution is instrumental in building a thorough and actionable understanding of the problem.

Root cause analysis methodologies are structured approaches used to identify the underlying causes of problems, focusing on understanding the “why” rather than just the “what.” Different methodologies cater to various scenarios, industries, and complexity levels. Here is an overview of some popular approaches to RCA:

5 whys

As already addressed, this method is one of the earliest approaches to RCA and involves asking "Why?" five times in succession to delve into the underlying causes of a problem. It’s a simple and straightforward technique often used to explore cause-and-effect relationships.

8 disciplines problem solving (8D)

This is a systematic methodology that utilizes eight disciplines or steps, guiding teams through problem definition, root cause identification, and solution implementation. It is widely used in manufacturing and quality management.

Cause-and-effect flowchart

This approach uses flowcharts to visually map out the cause-and-effect relationships between different elements of a problem. It aids organizations in understanding the interconnected factors leading to an issue.

Cause mapping

Similar to the cause-and-effect flowchart but more detailed, cause mapping builds a visual diagram that clearly represents the relationships between different causes of a problem.

Change analysis

By comparing situations before and after a change, this method identifies what variables have altered and how they may have contributed to the problem.


An acronym for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control, DMAIC is a data-driven methodology often used in projects for process improvement.

FMEA (failure mode and effects analysis)

This method systematically examines potential failure modes in a process and assesses the risk associated with them, allowing for proactive risk management.

Simple Root Cause Analysis

This approach may include basic techniques like brainstorming, fishbone diagrams, or checklists, allowing for a more flexible and adaptable analysis of a problem.

While these various approaches have proven valuable in various contexts, they are examples of manual methodologies. As such, they may not be as effective when dealing with distributed systems and containers, where determining why something happened and what services it impacts can be almost impossible using traditional methods. More advanced, automated, or specialized tools are often needed when working with such intricate systems.

Conducting root cause analysis is a nuanced process that will likely vary across different companies and situations—organizations might have preferences for some approaches over others based on their unique needs. However, there is a basic approach that can be adapted to most situations, providing a foundational structure for RCA. This approach generally follows these steps:

  • Detect and investigate
    Before the RCA process ever kicks off, organizations must be able to first detect the issue and then perform an investigation into it. Detection and investigation provide essential details, such as ‘what’ is happening and ‘where’ in the system the issue can be found.
Graphic outlining a basic approach to root cause analysis.
  • Form an RCA team
    Team members should be chosen primarily from the area of the organization experiencing the problem and may include a manager with the authority to implement solutions, a user affected by the problem, and a quality improvement expert (especially if other team members lack experience in RCA).
  • Define the problem
    During the analysis, the team places equal emphasis on defining and understanding the problem. This is a form of triage that involves brainstorming possible causes and analyzing cause-and-effect relationships to answer ‘why’ the issue is occurring.
  • Mitigate where possible
    For issues that can be identified and addressed quickly, take action as soon as possible to restore service. More complex issues may require increasingly in-depth analysis, but the focus here should remain on creating possible solutions to addressing the current problem.
  • Meet regularly when needed
    If the analysis extends over a longer period, the team should remain in close contact via meetings. These meetings should be kept short and creative, with a loose agenda to encourage innovative thinking.
  • Assign responsibilities
    Many hands make light work, and the RCA team should divide responsibilities to accomplish more, more quickly. Specific tasks may be broken down and distributed among team members, depending on the complexity of the problem.
  • Resolve the issue
    Once the root cause has been uncovered, the team must work together to determine the best possible solution, and then implement it. For more intricate or wide-reaching issues, implementation might take anywhere from a day to several months.
  • Review and monitor
    After implementation, the team should review the effectiveness of the solution, adjusting as needed.

These steps, while general, can still be tailored to more-specific methodologies. The most important things to remember when carrying out RCA are:

  • Group collaboration often leads to better outcomes than individual efforts.
  • The people responsible for addressing the identified root causes should be actively involved in the analysis team.

This process helps organizations not only identify and solve current problems but also fosters a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

It is not always an easy task to find the cause behind the consequences. Root cause analysis may be hampered by many different challenges, hindering the effectiveness of RCA. These RCA obstacles can include:

  • Poorly defined problems
    When a problem is incorrectly presented, it can lead to confusion among team members. Different perceptions of the problem might arise, or the team may even pursue a solution for something that is not the real issue at hand—leading to wasted effort and resources.
  • Missing pieces of information
    Even basic issues can have hundreds of variables, some of which might be easy to overlook. Without dedicated, continuous observation of every possible cause, the analysis may lack key information.
  • Ephemeral infrastructure
    With modern infrastructure's minimal lifespan, traditional query-based root cause investigations are becoming increasingly difficult. The transient and elusive nature of modern systems can make tracking the root cause feel futile.
  • Lack of effective collaboration and communication
    Ineffective communication within the team conducting RCA can lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities to identify the real causes.
  • Complex and distributed systems
    As previously addressed, modern technology environments, with their distributed architectures and intricate interdependencies, can make RCA an extraordinarily complex task. Understanding how different components interact and affect one another requires deep expertise exceeding the capabilities of traditional RCA methods.
  • Resource constraints
    Conducting a thorough RCA requires time, skilled personnel, and tools. In organizations where these resources are limited, the quality and effectiveness of the RCA can be compromised.
  • Emotional bias and preconceptions
    Team members may have preconceived ideas or subconscious biases about what is causing the problem, leading to a narrowed focus and possibly overlooking the true root cause.
  • Regulatory and compliance issues
    In certain industries, RCA must be conducted within the framework of specific regulations, potentially adding complexity and constraints to the process.

Addressing the challenges faced in RCA requires a systematic approach supported by powerful technologies. Below are some best practices for countering many of the obstacles that could derail an otherwise promising approach to root cause analysis:

  • Clearly define the problem statement
    Articulate the problem in clear and specific terms, and ensure alignment among all team members. Creating a shared understanding of the problem can prevent confusion and focus the investigation on the real issue.
  • Invest in Comprehensive Data Collection
    Implement methods to continuously monitor and capture all relevant data and information. Using technology and automated tools can fill gaps and ensure that the RCA is built on a solid foundation of information.
  • Foster team collaboration
    Encourage open communication and collaboration within the RCA team. Creating a collaborative culture and using communication platforms can align efforts and prevent misunderstandings.
  • Invest in expertise and specialized tools
    Provide training on complex and distributed systems and invest in tools that can map and analyze intricate interactions. Understanding the interdependencies requires both expertise and technological support.
  • Plan and allocate resources
    Assess the needs, identify the necessary resources, and allocate the required time, tools, and personnel at the beginning of the RCA. This prevents the process from being compromised by lack of resources.
  • Promote objective analysis
    Promote a culture of objectivity and consider employing an external facilitator or third-party review. This can mitigate the effect of personal biases and ensure a balanced analysis.
  • Addressing regulatory and compliance issues
    Familiarize the RCA team with relevant industry regulations. Use tools to support and document the process thoroughly to ensure that it meets all requirements and guidelines. Seek additional legal expertise if necessary to align the RCA process with established compliance standards—penalties for violating data-protection requirements can be steep.
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RCA remains a vital aspect of identifying and understanding the underlying causes of problems within various processes and systems. However, in the age of modern distributed systems and the complexity of cloud-native applications, traditional manual methodologies of RCA are no longer enough. These conventional approaches struggle to keep up with the dynamism and intricacy inherent in today's technological landscape.

ServiceNow Cloud Observability is a revolutionary tool designed to tackle these challenges. By leveraging the industry-defining Now Platform®, Cloud Observability breaks down organizational silos and offers a unified solution that directly connects cloud-native applications with the infrastructure on which they run. By gathering critical telemetry data, Cloud Observability goes beyond mere problem identification, providing comprehensive insights to improve security, workflows, collaboration, and ROI. From reducing the mean time to resolution (MTTR) to increasing overall reliability and integrating actionable alerting, Cloud Observability provides a comprehensive set of tools tailored to the demands of your modern enterprise.

ServiceNow Cloud Observability provides an answer to the limitations of traditional RCA, addressing the challenges posed by today's ephemeral and complex infrastructure. Click here to learn more about how Cloud Observability can transform your business, and get to the heart of the issue more effectively than ever before.

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