June 25, 2021 | Marcus Miller

Root Cause Analysis: Are You Treating Symptoms or Curing the Disease?

treating the symptoms rather than the root cause

When I conduct TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis courses, I love seeing the “aha” moment. That moment when participants come to the realization that they have been treating the symptoms of problems rather than truly identifying and curing the disease causing the symptoms.

We are all human, so here’s an analogy we can all relate to. Let’s say you are having headaches. Maybe even migraines. When you have a migraine, at that moment, all that matters is getting rid of the migraine. So, you begin self-treatment immediately. You find a dark room, you take aspirin, you cut out all noise, you get some sleep, and you wake up feeling better. After treating the symptoms of the migraine, you feel things are under control and you go back to work. You’re busy catching up and just relieved that the problem seems to be gone.

At this point, do you think you’ve truly solved the issue?

Do you really believe you’ve eliminated the chances of having another migraine? Of course not. You’ve merely fixed the symptoms of the migraine.

However, if you set a goal of finding the root cause(s) of why you’re having migraines, you would fix them and eliminate the migraines going forward. Maybe it’s a simple cause. For example, you find your migraines are caused by dehydration, so you put in a corrective action to address that issue. You start carrying a water bottle with an alarm set to help you remember to drink enough fluids. No dehydration, no migraines, no symptoms!

What if, just maybe, it’s more serious—such as a brain tumor? If left unchecked, the brain tumor becomes a bigger risk every day. However, if you follow up on what’s required to diagnose the brain tumor as the cause of your migraines, then you can put life-saving corrective actions in place (radiation, surgery, and/or medications). Imagine if you didn’t take the opportunity to dig deeper and recognize the source of the migraines, we would have likely had a fatality.

So, I ask again, are you treating symptoms and not curing the disease with your current root cause analysis?

Let me offer you something that is not hypothetical. I had a conversation with a TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis (RCA) user the other day. Actually, that conversation led me to write this article. The TapRooT® user told me that he rejected an RCA his team handed in because they only identified a symptom and made a recommendation to fix the symptom.

The team was investigating a motor failure. They found that the foundation the motor sits on crumbled and started to tilt. That tilt caused the motor to fail. The team identified the crumbling foundation as the root cause. Therefore, their corrective action was to fix the foundation. Problem solved, right?

Then again, this guy is pretty sharp and has had his TapRooT® training. He knows that he will deal with a repeat incident if they don’t go beyond treating the symptom—the crumbling foundation. If they simply build the foundation again without fixing the reasons why it crumbled in the first place, they’ll be in the same frustrating place down the road. (Pun intended.)

Rather, he chose to challenge them to find the root causes of the crumbling foundation. He told the team to dig deeper (again, pun intended!) and find out more information about the crumbling foundation.

So, when the team digs deeper and collects more evidence, the TapRooT® Root Cause Tree® and Dictionary will help them select and eliminate the true root causes of the symptom, the crumbling foundation. Once they identify the true root causes, they will create more impactful corrective actions to cure the disease and prevent further problems. They don’t have to be experts in foundations to find the root causes because the TapRooT® process and tools will give them expert guidance.

Revised 1/27/2015. Copyright© 2015 by System Improvements, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Duplication Prohibited.

This is what is so powerful about TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis

As long as you follow the TapRooT® process and use the tools, you’ll find root causes no matter who does the investigation. Maybe your team will find that human error was involved when building the foundation, that materials were mishandled and stored incorrectly, that the design was bad, or that there was missing preventative maintenance. Whatever your team finds, TapRooT® has a collection of proven best practices and knowledge to fix every root cause on the back of our TapRooT® Root Cause Tree®. That information is in our Corrective Action Helper®. It helps take away the anxiety that comes with having to have all the answers!

In this investigation, the team should be proud that they did identify a symptom of the problem. But the crumbling foundation isn’t a root cause, it’s only a symptom of a bigger problem. When we use TapRooT®, we have a name for the symptoms we find: Causal Factors. The team needs to take another step and perform a root cause analysis on the Causal Factors. Then, they will be able to create more impactful corrective actions that will prevent future crumbling. They will cure the disease and won’t have to worry about the motor failing again because foundations crumble and tilt. In addition, they can then proactively check all the other foundations and fix them before they too cause an expensive and dangerous motor failure.

I’ll leave you with one other thought to help you identify if you are treating symptoms instead of curing the disease

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do you see repeat incidents at your company?
  2. Do your corrective actions focus on retraining people, rewriting policy and procedures, and/or using discipline to fix people?

If you answered yes to either question, your RCA process isn’t helping you diagnose and cure the disease. It’s only leading you to the symptoms so you naturally focus your corrective actions to treat those symptoms.

I hope this article helps you determine if your RCA process goes beyond identifying and fixing only the symptoms of problems. If you are interested in learning how you can leverage TapRooT®, contact me at marcus.miller@taproot.com. I’d be happy to talk with you and schedule an Executive Briefing and demo.


Human Performance, Implementation, Root Cause Analysis
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