April 26, 2023 | Mark Paradies

Six Common Root Cause Analysis Problems (And How To Fix Them)

overwhelmed by problems

Root Cause Analysis Problems

You might guess that the simplest way to analyze a problem would be the easiest. But that is often wrong. Why? Because of six common problems that crop up when using the simplest root cause analysis techniques.

What are the six common root cause analysis problems? Here’s the list…

  • Confirmation Bias
  • Favorite-Cause-itis
  • No human factors training/guidance
  • No systematic process
  • Thinking they know the cause
  • Picking from a list of causes

In the following sections, we will review each of these problems and then explain one easy method to fix them all.

RCA Problem #1: Confirmation Bias

This is a serious problem that has been proven by many scientific studies. As Francis Bacon once said:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion
draws all things else to support and agree with it.”

That’s the problem named CONFIRMATION BIAS.

When you develop a hypothesis, you start to get attached to it. It becomes your opinion. You subconsciously try to prove it. Your subconscious mind guides you to cherry-pick “evidence” that confirms your belief and disregard evidence that conflicts with your belief. You only see what confirms your beliefs (your hypothesis).

Even though you realize the concept of confirmation bias, you may not be able to will yourself NOT to fall victim to it. In the book, The Little Book of Stupidity (2015), Sia Mohajer wrote:

“The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development
and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening.”

How does this impact simple root cause analysis? Many simple techniques are based on the concept of cause and effect. These techniques either explicitly or subconsciously depend on developing a hypothesis and then “proving” it. This may be how someone develops their 5-Whys to find the root cause of a problem.

Want to learn more about confirmation bias? Read THIS ARTICLE or see the Wikipedia article about confirmation bias.

RCA Problem #2: Favorite-Cause-itis

This is one of my favorite root cause analysis problems. Why? Because I’ve seen it exhibited so many times. And also because it affects experts more than novices.

Why is it so common? Because we all have favorites. And root causes are no different than ice cream flavors.

ice cream flavors

If you are like me, even when you are presented with dozens of choices, you have one, or two, or three favorites. Favorites that you will try again and again. What about the other flavors? You may occasionally sample one, but it is highly likely that you will choose one of your favorites.

And so it is with root causes. You have several favorites that you will tend to look for and find. And the more of an expert you are … the more fixated on your favorite root causes you become.

I know a human factors expert that was a consultant on a major investigation. His research specialty was fatigue. In this major accident, guess what he looked for and found? You guessed it … fatigue was a major cause of bad decision-making.

Simple root cause analysis techniques let you pick your favorite causes and ignore others.

RCA Problem #3: No Human Factors Training/Guidance

I’ve taught hundreds of root cause analysis courses. For years, at the start of the class, I would ask:

Has anyone had any human factors training?

I would collect the statistics. About one person in a large class would answer yes. That’s a little less than 4% of the people I polled. And the next question I asked was:

How many of you have been asked to perform a root cause analysis before you had this training?

hands up voting

The answer was almost unanimous. Everyone had previously been asked to find root causes (perform an incident investigation) with no root cause analysis training and no human factors training.

What do you think happened to these folks when they investigated an incident with a human error using a simple root cause analysis tool? That’s right. They almost always stopped at “human error” as the root cause.

Is a human error a root cause? If you think it is, I suggest that you read this article:

Why Human Error is NOT a Root Cause

RCA Problem #4: No Systematic Process

Most “simple” root cause analysis tools aren’t very systematic. They don’t provide the investigator with guidance.

What is guided root cause analysis? Read this article:

Guided Root Cause Analysis

wagon train

Then decide which wagon train you would prefer – guided or unguided.

RCA Problem #5: Thinking They Know the Cause

Do you jump to conclusions when you investigate incidents?

Many people use simple root cause analysis tools because they don’t need help finding root causes. They already know the answer. They hear the story and say:

“I know what caused that.”

Why spend much time on root cause analysis when they already know the answer?

But as Kelsey Guetshow tweeted:


Thus the problem with jumping to conclusions is very similar to favorite-cause-itis.

RCA Problem #6: Picking from a List of Causes

Pick lists of root causes are a problem. Why? Because they encourage all of the problems listed above.

When I’ve seen people given a list of root causes without guidance and definitions, just like in the ice cream example, they pick their favorite. That favorite is often human error or a blame category.

What is a blame category? Try one of these:

  • Attitude
  • Attention less than adequate
  • Step was omitted due to a mental lapse
  • Individual’s capabilities to perform work less than adequate
  • Improper body positioning
  • Incorrect performance due to a mental lapse
  • Less than adequate motor skills
  • Inadequate size or strength
  • Poor judgment/lack of judgment/misjudgment
  • Reasoning capabilities less than adequate
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor reaction time
  • Emotional overload
  • Lower learning aptitude
  • Memory failure/memory lapse
  • Behavior inadequate
  • Violation by individual
  • Inability to comprehend training
  • Insufficient mental capabilities
  • Poor language ability
  • In the line of fire
  • Inattention to detail
  • Unawareness
  • Mindset

Yes, these categories are part of a root cause pick list that someone has to “use” to find root causes.

Why don’t they just say “stupidity” or “goofed up”? I’m sure in some later revision, they will be included.

My conclusion is that you shouldn’t use “simple” pick lists.

Solution for Root Cause Analysis Problems

If you are a TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis System User, this answer to the above problems won’t surprise you. TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis solves all these problems. How? Read on…

First, it provides a systematic process that guides investigators to the causes of human performance problems. That solves problems #3 and #4.

The SnapCharT® Diagram and the Root Cause Tree® Diagram and Dictionary are combined to solve problems #1, #2, and #5 by requiring evidence-based root cause analysis that prevents jumping to conclusions, confirmation bias, and favorite-cause-itis. How? Read this ARTICLE for more information.

TapRooT® Root Cause Tree®

Also, the guidance of the Human Performance Troubleshooting Guide and the Root Cause Tree® Dictionary stop users from using the Root Cause Tree® Diagram as a “pick list.”

Solve Your Root Cause Analysis Problems

The easiest way to solve your root cause analysis problems is to attend TapRooT® Root Cause Analysis Training.

When and where are our upcoming public courses being held? CLICK HERE for all the upcoming worldwide locations and dates.


For a quote for a course at your site, contact us by CLICKING HERE.

But whatever you do, don’t continue to suffer with the six common problems of simple root cause analysis.

Root Cause Analysis Tips
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