Why industrial plants need to adopt the root cause analysis methodology

Root cause analysis (RCA) is an essential methodology for industrial maintenance teams to get out of the damaging reactive operating mode.

“Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay.” (Sherlock Holmes, The adventure of the Copper Beeches)

What can we learn from Sherlock Holmes when conducting such analysis? At industrial plants across the world, I have run into situations where the maintenance crew is occupied full-time to repair equipment that randomly breaks in order to put the plant back into operation. A term commonly used to describe this situation is firefighting. In this set up maintenance costs are high and unpredictable. There tends to be a constant tension between the operation and maintenance teams because the maintenance team is always seen as the great villain who prevents the operation team from implementing its production program and, moreover, accounts for a significant portion of the operating costs.

Realizing the importance of the RCA methodology, however, is one thing, its successful implementation is another and there is a reason for this.

“I never guess. It is a shocking habit — destructive to the logical faculty.”  (Sherlock Holmes, The sign of four)

RCA can be defined as any evidence-driven process that, at a minimum, uncovers underlying truths about past adverse events, thereby exposing opportunities for making lasting improvements(Latino & Latino, 2006). In other words, the whole process should be driven by evidence, which is one of the reasons why it does not often produce the expected results.

As in a criminal investigation, to solve a problem, you need evidence and you need to find it before it is destroyed. The lack of data and facts impair the effectiveness of RCA, which renders it just a bureaucratic routine that does not identify the real cause of the problem. As a result  the methodology is discredited within the organization.

We train our employees on RCA at the Full Service sites, and we always begin the training with an analogy between RCA and the research methods of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, the lead fictional character from the books of British author and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” (Sherlock Holmes, A scandal in Bohemia)

We try to emphasize the key points of the methodology used by the character to solve the most puzzling criminal cases, which are, in short, its hallmark and standard of conduct:

  • Sherlock Holmes has a passion for definite and exact knowledge. This implies that data should be collected to prove the hypothesis before determining a root cause analysis.
  • Holmes also believes that examining 1000 crimes would provide the information for solving the 1001th crime. Examine data from similar events because they will help to improve the process of analysis
  • He believes that the world is  full of obvious things which nobody observes. Don’t accept the most immediate explanation without looking at all of the information.

“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” (Sherlock Holmes, The hound of the Baskervilles)

Accordingly, we train our colleagues at the ABB Full Service industrial customer sites across the world to adopt a critical RCA process which consists, in summary, of the following steps:

  • Define the problem
  • If necessary, perform Failure Analysis
  • Identify possible causes
  • Check the real cause (s)
  • Propose a solution to the problem
  • Implement the solution
  • Monitor the results

The details of this methodology and examples will be published in the coming months but, if you want to have more information about it immediately, please don’t hesitate to contact me by the following email: conversas@br.abb.com

Image credit: courtesy of Averain via a creative commons license on Flickr

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About the author

Jose Baptista

Atualmente trabalho na área de Consultoria em Gestão de Manutenção e Confiabilidade, responsável por consultoria, treinamentos, auditorias e suporte a implantação de contratos. Trabalhei na ABB em dois períodos, totalizando mais de 13 anos no Full Service como site manager de diversos contratos, gerente de engenharia, consultoria e gerente regional na ABB dos Estados Unidos e responsável global pelo processo de Manutenção focada na Confiabilidade. Sou formado em Engenharia Elétrica pela FEI - Faculdade de Engenharia Industrial e certificado como profissional de manutenção e confiabilidade nos EUA pela SMRP (Sociedade dos Profissionais de Manutenção e Confiabilidade - EUA).
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