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Proactive And Reactive Problem Solving Process

Posted on December 10, 2012 in Articles


It is a known fact that failures or negative events are not unexpected in business activities and some of them can have significant impact to the business in terms of profitability or reputation.

Examples of these are:
•    Major breakdowns of a transportation system
•    A problematic web-site launched by an airline
•    Incidents of fraudulent cash withdrawal from ATM

It is therefore imperative for business managers to be able to prevent these failures/events from occurring, or in an unfortunately event where it has occurred, to be able to find out the root causes that lead to the problem in order to prevent it from occurring again. There are 2 well-practiced techniques available to help business managers achieve this objective that is Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) and Root Cause Analysis (RCA).

FMEA is a proactive technique that is applied before the event to prevent potential failures, whereas RCA is the technique used after the fact (i.e. the event has occurred) to identify the origins of the problem in order to prevent reoccurrence. Although RCA is used as a reactive method of identifying event(s) causes and solving them whereby analysis is done after an event has occurred; insights gained from RCA will prove to be very useful when performing a FMEA on similar processes or product/services in the future. Below is a brief summary of both FMEA and RCA including their applications and benefits.


Failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) is a step-by-step approach for identifying all possible failures in a design, a manufacturing or service process, or a product or service. It is commonly defined as “a systematic process for identifying potential design and process failures before they occur, with the intent to eliminate them or minimise the risk associated with them”.

“Failure modes” means the ways, or modes, in which something might fail. Failures are any errors or defects, especially ones that affect the customer, and can be potential or actual. “Effects” refers to the consequences of those failures. FMEA involves the method of prioritizing failures according to how serious their consequences are, how frequently they occur and how easily they can be detected. The purpose is to take actions to eliminate or reduce failures, starting with the highest-priority ones.

A successful FMEA application helps a team to identify potential failure modes based on past experience with similar products or processes or based on common failure mechanism logic, enabling the team to prevent those failures with the minimum of effort and resource expenditure. FMEA can also help to transform a reactive culture (that reacts to problems) into a forward-looking culture that anticipates problems before they occur or escalate.

Proper use of FMEA provides several benefits:
o    Early identification and elimination of potential product/service failure modes
o    Improve product/service reliability and quality
o    Increase customer satisfaction
o    Prioritize product/service deficiencies
o    Capture organization knowledge
o    Emphasizes problem prevention
o    Documents risk and actions taken to reduce risk
o    Catalyst for teamwork and idea exchange between functions

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a unique problem solving technique for conducting an investigation into an identified incident, problem, concern or non-conformity. RCA requires the investigator(s) to look beyond the symptom of the immediate problem and to understand the fundamental or underlying cause(s) of the problem and put them right, thereby preventing re-occurrence of the same problem. This involves investigating the patterns of negative events, finding hidden flaws in the system, and discovering specific actions that contributed to the problem. It assumes that systems and negative events/problems are interrelated. An action in one area triggers an action in another, and another, and so on. By tracing back these actions, investigator can discover where the event/problem started and how it grew into the symptom.

In other words, RCA seeks to identify the origin of a problem by using a specific set of steps, with associated tools, to find the primary cause of the negative event/problem, so that the investigator can determine:
-   What happened
-   Why it happened
-   What to do to prevent it from happening again

In addition to common problem solving tools such as 5 Whys and Cause & Effect Analysis, RCA employs additional tools like Events and Causal Factor Analysis. Situations where RCA can be applied include:
-  Customer complaint
-  Defect in product
-  Lapse in service
-  Noncompliance to procedures
-  Safety incident
-  Missed deadline
-  Recurring problems

The benefits of comprehensive root cause analysis include:
-  Identification of permanent solutions
-  Prevention of recurring failures
-  Acquiring an effective problem solving process applicable to failures or negative events

In summary, both techniques complement each other and when used correctly can provide organizations with a proven and practical means to address services/products issues and produce workable solutions for improvement.

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