How long should a root cause analysis take? This is a question that I’m frequently asked. 

Of course, the answer is … It DEPENDS!

Depends on what?

  • How complex is the incident?
  • Are there complex tests that need to be performed to troubleshoot equipment issues?
  • Is everyone available to be interviewed?
  • Is there regulatory coordination/interference (for instance … do they take control of the scene or the evidence)?
  • How far do you want to dig into generic causes?
  • What level of proof do you need to support your conclusions?

However, I believe most investigations should be completed in a couple of weeks or at most a couple of months.

Now for the exceptions…

REGULATORY DELAYS: We helped facilitate a major investigation that was progressing until the regulators took the evidence. They stated that they needed it for their investigation. Their investigation dragged on for over a year. Finally, they announced their findings and released the evidence back to the company. It turned out that none of the evidence sequestered by the government had anything to do with the reason for their investigation being delayed (they were doing complex modeling and videos to demonstrate their conclusions). After about an additional two months, the company investigation was completed. The companies investigation was delayed for over a year unnecessarily. 

SLOW INVESTIGATION DELAYED BY UNCOOPERATIVE PARTICIPANTS: One of the longest root cause analyses I’ve ever seen took four years. The agency performing the investigation is notoriously slow when performing investigations but this investigation was slow even by their standards. What happened? The investigation had multiple parties that were suing each other over the accident and some of the parties would not comply with a subpoena. The agency had to take the unwilling participant to court. Eventually, the evidence was provided but it took almost a year for the process to play out.

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SLOW INVESTIGATION PROCESSES: The most recent bad example is the Alison Canyon Natural Gas Storage leak root cause analysis. The investigation started when the leak was stopped 18 months ago. But the root cause analysis still is not finished. Why? Is seems the process is mired in public hearings. The spokesperson for the California Public Utilities Commission said that the “study” was in the third phase of a five phase process. What was slowing the “study” (root cause analysis and corrective actions) down? Public hearings. Here is what an article in NGI Daily Gas Prices said:

A California Public Utilities Commission spokesperson said the study remains in the third of a five-phase process that is to take more than three years. The third phase is expected to take up to nine months, and the fourth phase more than two months, before the final phase of “integration and interpretation” of the results is issued.

The process is scheduled to take three years! That definitely makes any kind of timely root cause analysis impossible. 

CONCLUSION: Many people complain about the time it takes for a good root cause analysis. But most excessive delays have nothing to do with the root cause analysis process that is chosen. Excessive delays are usually political, due to uncooperative participants, or regulatory red tape. 

Spin A Cause

Don’t try to save time on an investigation by picking the fastest root causes analysis tool (for example … Spin-a-Cause™), rather pick an advanced root cause analysis tool (TapRooT®) that will get you superior results in a reasonable amount of time and effort. 

One more idea…

Learn from smaller but significant incidents to avoid major accidents that have huge public relations and regulatory complications. Learning from smaller incidents can be much faster and save considerable headaches and money.