Problem-solving: Root Cause Analysis (RCA)

May 27, 2019

Excerpt from 'How to Wrestle an Octopus: an agency account manager's guide to pretty much everything'. Available now!


AgencyLand is a massive machine made up of moving parts, complexities, and challenges. Think about all the different types of things that could go wrong in a typical agency day (you won’t have to think too hard!). These problem scenarios may look vaguely similar to the following: 

  • You have 10 different pieces of campaign POS that are meant to be delivered to 40 retail stores nationwide on an ultra-tight deadline. All deliveries arrive on time, but stores start reporting that they are missing particular pieces of POS, and some have double-ups.
  • You’ve booked your client’s TV commercial to play at specific times during live coverage of your national football league games. When both you and your client tune in to watch, you are disappointed to see the network delivering on only a small fraction of the promised time slots. 
  • Your agency has worked hard to produce an annual report for your client. The job ended up as a 6-colour print run with special finishing on the cover. When the printed report arrives, you notice ink scuff marks in one of the sections. When you check a few other samples, you see these marks on many of the reports.

As an account manager, one of the many hats that you wear is ‘Chief Problem Solver’. Given that you will need to solve a great many problems during your career, a useful technique to master is Root Cause Analysis (RCA). Once you understand the RCA concept, you’ll likely use it all the time (either consciously or subconsciously).


What is RCA?

RCA ‘does what it says on the box’ - it gets to the root (the underlying cause) of a problem so that you can analyse it; find the most suitable and effective solution, and then implement it.

The three steps of the RCA process are:

  • Define. What is the problem?
  • Analyse. Why did it happen?
  • Solve. What can be done to stop it from happening again?


What is a ‘root cause’?

Picture, for a moment, a weed growing in your garden. You know it’s a weed because you see the telltale foliage appearing above the ground. The foliage represents a manifestation of the problem, and the roots of the weed are the source or cause of your problem. These lie beneath the surface of the ground where they can’t be seen.

It’s easy to assume that a weed (the whole problem) has only one root (or one single cause). However, when you pull even a small weed out of the ground, you usually find one main root plus a system of smaller roots; and the bigger the weed, the bigger the root system you are likely to pull up. Any of these smaller roots could be a contributing cause to your problem. Problems may have multiple (parallel) causes or a chain reaction of causes (or both).


Step 1: define

You are probably hyper-aware of the problem you need to deal with, and how it is affecting you, your agency, and your client. However, it’s important to define the issue by the way it has impacted your overall goals. For example, in the first scenario, above, you may think that your problem is that the POS failed to arrive at its destination correctly. However, within the framework of RCA problem-solving, the (bigger) problem would be that the campaign’s success was compromised (with a possible loss of sales).

People often disagree over how to define the problem, which is why it’s easier if you use the impact on the project or campaign goals as the framework for your definition.


Step 2: analyse

Once you have defined your problem, the next step is to find the root cause via the use of a visual ‘map’.

One thing to remember, during the RCA process, is to never assume anything. It would be easy (in any of the scenarios above) to quickly make assumptions and apportion blame. Often situations are not as obvious as they seem, which is one reason why using the RCA technique is so beneficial.

A ‘Cause Map’

Making assumptions, or focusing on just one single cause can limit the solutions-set, which means you may miss other, viable, solutions. Creating a ‘cause map’ can help provide a simple, visual overview of all the causes which contributed to the problem.

For example:

In this example there was one root cause identified and one other cause.

Incorporating the 5 Whys

The 5 Whys technique is excellent to use when creating your cause map. At each level/step, ask the question ‘why’, then the answer becomes the next level/step. Keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the root cause(s).

Some causes are linked with an ‘and’ in between, which indicates that two or more causes were identified as independent of each other, but both were required to produce the effect.

Beware of ending up at a root cause such as ‘human error’ or ‘procedure not followed’. If you do, keep digging! These are generic conclusions which result in weak solutions. By exploring one or two levels deeper, you can identify exactly why the procedure was not followed or the human error made, and then better solve the problem.


Step 3: solve

By creating a cause map, you could uncover a hornet’s nest of issues. While you will (hopefully) discover the root cause, you may also have to address other causes that you identify along the way.  

Effective solutions should result in a change to how people execute work process. If nothing changes as a result of your RCA, then your analysis has been purely theoretical, and of no practical use to anyone, so it’s up to you to make sure that some good will come out of a not-so-good situation.


Who benefits from the RCA process?

  • You. Executing an RCA is highly beneficial for your career development. You’ll learn by your own or others’ mistakes; you’ll figure out how to make your campaigns run more smoothly in the future, and you’ll be able to present an impressive analysis report to your manager.
  • Your agency. The RCA process can uncover a raft of underlying problems, including systemic or process issues, human errors, technology or machinery failures, and miscommunication. By working to solve one problem you may end up helping your agency to tighten up multiple areas of the business.
  • Your client. Mistakes happen, and most clients will be sympathetic to that. Whilst they may not be happy about the situation, you will earn some of their trust back if you (1) take responsibility for the problem; (2) tell them that you have identified exactly what went wrong, and (3) outline the measures that you will put in place so that the same problem does not happen again.


Other uses of RCA

RCA is a technique usually employed when something goes wrong, but you can – surprisingly – use it when something goes well too. For example, you run an online programmatic campaign for your client, and your client’s product sales go through the roof. RCA can help you to identify what led to the success of the campaign, which will help you to replicate that success in the future.




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