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Root Cause Failure Analysis: How RCFA Has Yet to Achieve Its True Potential

Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA) is an effective engineering tool used to troubleshoot failures and develop critical analysis about the root cause behind them. RCFA often generates a lot of interest as a critical tool to pinpoint and arrive at the cause of engineering failures. Engineers pick up relevant facts, symptoms, and evidence from critical investigation of the fault. From this study, they discern the causative and non-causative factors that led to the problem. RCFA takes into account both latent and visible defects to arrive at a definitive conclusion.

Presently, RCFA is used in practically every engineering sector. It is the best tool available off an engineer's workbench to look at failures through a completely different perspective. Thus, RCFA is the best way to understand why a critical component or a piece of equipment failed and what is required to prevent such failures again. Today RCFA is a major evaluation component in engineering sectors such as metallurgy, welding, process control, electronics, and others.

Root cause failure analysis also plays an important role in times of major disasters. NASA's Failure Analysis and Materials Evaluation Branch analyzed more than 85,000 pieces of debris to find out the chain of events that led to the shuttle Columbia's disintegration at an altitude of 185,000 meters. RCFA is also extremely useful in the chemical industry and petroleum sector, where critical disasters can have devastating consequences.

Though RCFA is not a new invention or a discovery, engineers often turn to it because of superfluous reasons, such as lack of a budget or lack of time. Therefore what RCFA needs is not a traditional approach to find out who was behind the incident, but a novel approach to dig to the bottom of the problem and discover the real cause.

Engineering firms face both routine as well as chronic breakdowns. Most engineering firms typically devote nearly 80% of their engineering budgets to tackle equipment or device breakdown. Rather than spending the entire budget on superficial problems, it is best to put an effective RCFA plan in place.

What prevents RCFA from realizing its true potential is that people often take delight in wanting to know who did it, rather than why it happened. There are many reasons why people avoid RCFA, causing this highly effective tool to be less prevalent. Therefore, despite its obvious advantages, it has not achieved its true potential due to a variety of reasons.

Many engineering firms run on tight schedules and are constantly busy achieving targets and meeting order commitments. Hence, any engineering breakdown involves just a few quick fixes, and things proceed as if nothing serious happened. In many instances, RCFA is implemented as a "who did it" game rather than as a means to understanding the symptoms of the problem. Many times, RCFA involves compiling and filing a set of standard forms and procedures, treating it as an open-and-shut case. Often, engineers present a plethora of excuses, which boil down to examples such as:
  • No time to do root analysis
  • No supporting manuals documentation to enable commencing with RCFA
  • Managerial vacillation—dillydallying and the use of deviational tactics
  • The choice between doing either routine maintenance or following RCFA
Even if the RCFA tool is implemented in an organization, it often happens that most recommendations are not implemented. In addition, a failed RCFA program could also mean that the firm lacks a formal organizational structure to put the program into practice. Many times firms send engineers to a variety of training programs. However, upon their return engineers are given too many RCFA programs to handle at the same time. Such an approach to RCFA is surely not the right one. RCFA needs a fresh approach with the right components in place. Proper RCFA implementation requires a systematic approach. What is required is:
  • an aptly defined system of roles and relationships
  • appropriate training
  • a situation that warrants initiation of RCFA action
  • managerial and expert support for the RCFA program
Surely, RCFA is a rugged tool for analyzing breakdown and failure in engineering. Yet, its true potential remains underutilized in much of the engineering world due to the manifold circumstances described here. RCFA could be a great tool in the engineering world if the RCFA program and its final recommendations are implemented both in letter and in spirit.
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