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How to implement a cost effective RCPE process.

An effective problem solving process can improve production reliability significantly. Despite this, few organizations have a functioning root cause process in place. This article discusses common problems and solutions that can improve root cause problem elimination.

The business process for discovering root cause problems is most commonly named Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA). The name RCFA implies the largest and most expensive problem organizations encounter when implementing problem solving. The results wanted from the process are to eliminate the problem, not to analyze the failure. Therefore, the name should be changed to Root Cause Problem Elimination (RCPE). An example of RCPE results are plotted over time in Figure 1.

Initially, it costs money to identify and analyze the problem--in this case $1800 for personnel, testing, and consumables. It also costs money to prioritize, plan, and schedule the corrective action ($200). The redesign and material cost to implement the solution was $1800, for a total cost of $3800. The cost avoidance from future problems is estimated to $8000 per year. The figure shows an RCPE profit of $20,000 of avoided problem after three years. The avoided cost will continue to accumulate.

If an organization engages in Root Cause Problem Elimination, it must implement the discovered solutions. Otherwise, the organization will end up paying for a wasted analysis.


An example of a successful RCFA that cost a plant US$ 1.1 million was once described to me. A team performed a RCFA for several weeks and discovered that the root cause was worn out coupling bolts and missing bolts due to misalignment. The main business process root cause was poor planning and scheduling practices that didn't allow mechanics time to align properly. This analysis was described as a huge success. But the obvious question is why focus on RCFA in this plant? If the plant had a basic preventive maintenance program in place, the missing bolts would have been found much earlier by looking at the coupling using a stroboscope (yes, guards should have OSHA specified inspection ports).


Highly reactive organizations should not use RCPE since they don't need to analyze problems to find solutions. Common problems are poor foundations, corrosion, broken components that aren't fixed yet, lack of bill of materials, disorganized spare parts and materials, lack of equipment numbers, an extensive maintenance backlog, lack of standard operating procedures and training for operators, and many more. A highly reactive organization must work on basic preventive maintenance and planning and scheduling before they can do RCPE.


A root cause problem elimination process should be designed to involve few people for most problems and engage larger groups only if needed. Root Cause programs are often designed to engage a facilitator and a group of people. The group size is often 10 or more people. Engaging a larger group for RCPE can be a great learning experience and can provide great results if it's used in moderation. However, large groups tend to be hard to get together and will usually dissolve over time if meeting becomes too cumbersome. Day to day root cause problem eliminations should be managed by the front-line (hourly and first line supervision). If they run into problems, a larger group may be called.


I believe that 80% of all problems in your organization can be solved by the front line using simple problem solving skills. To be effective, they need to be given the right tools and processes. They are, in most cases, closest to the problem and can therefore collect data and observations better than anyone else in the organization. They usually have the technical knowledge needed to solve the problem. What they lack is often a problem solving process and the discipline to follow that process.

It is management's responsibility to design or provide a root cause process for their staff to use effectively. Management is also responsible for implementing the root cause business process in the mill, setting responsibilities, and following up to make people accountable for all of the elements in the process.


It is also management's responsibility to change the plant culture to support root cause problem elimination. Reporting structures and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) must drive the organization in the right direction. For example, it is still common to see classifications of problems by departments. Downtime is often reported in four or five categories such as operations, electrical maintenance, mechanical maintenance, instrumentation, and sometimes process control/ automation. Lost production reported by department breaks the first rule of root cause problem elimination. The rule is to ask why and not who. Many of you will argue that we need to know where to spend the resources, therefore we ask who. The issue is that you do not know, since you classified the problem before a root cause was completed.

A typical example may be that a motor tripped at 2:00 am. In the morning meeting we ask, what happened? Well, a motor tripped, so it's not operations, it is a maintenance issue. It will be classified as electrical because it was an electrical motor that tripped. The thought process may look something like the picture below. The actual story is that operations overloaded the process, therefore the motor tripped. The E/I mechanic reset the motor, but will not ever tell anyone what happened because the mechanic understands the established culture in the organization and does not want to put his friend in operations in a bad spot.

Problems should instead be classified by symptoms, equipment number and/or component type. The problems may be categorized by cost and frequency of failure. When a Root Cause Problem Elimination has been completed, we may want to classify the problems by department or equipment type. However, in most cases all departments will be part of the problem and the solution.



Tor Idhammar is a partner and vice president for IDCON Inc. Email him at



* Why Root Cause Failure Analysis should be replaced with Root Cause Problem Elimination.

* The economic benefits of RCPE.

* Why RCPE should focus on WHY not WHO.


* "Planning and Scheduling: How Well Are You Doing?" by Tor Idhammar, Solutions!, April 2005. To access this article, enter the following Product Code in the search field on 05APRSO28. Or call TAPPI Member Connection at 1 800 332-8686 (US); 1 800 446-9431 (Canada); +1 770 446 1400 (International).

* "Do you listen when your equipment speaks to you?" Solutions!, September 2003, Tor Idhammar and Michael Lippig: Product Code: 03SEPSO12

* "A driving lesson for operations and maintenance," Tor Idhammar and Michael Lippig, Solutions!, January 2004. Product Code: 04JANSO05.
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Author:Idhammar, Tor
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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