Apply root cause analysis to building operations

Ask questions to identify and correct underlying problems rather than treat symptoms
Friday, February 6, 2015
By Mark Orge

At one time or another, facility managers have all sought to find efficiencies, or to improve tenant experience or to correct a recurring problem in their operations. A tool that can often help is root cause analysis (RCA).

What is RCA? It is a problem-solving method aimed at identifying the root causes of issues. In essence, its goal is to correct underlying problems rather than treating symptoms. The following scenarios help illustrate the practical application of RCA.

In scenario one, a man’s arm hurts, so he goes to the doctor. The doctor sees the pain he is experiencing and prescribes some painkillers. The man takes the painkiller, and the pain goes away for the day. But the pain returns tomorrow, requiring the man to repeat all of the steps he took the previous day.

In scenario two, a man’s arm hurts and he goes to the doctor. The doctor sends him to have an X-ray taken, and the X-ray shows he has a fracture in his forearm. The doctor realigns his forearm and sets it in a cast. The arm is healed within several weeks, and the pain is gone for good.

Root cause analysis was performed in scenario two, but not in scenario one.

The root cause analysis methodology rests on the premise that by solving a problem at its root, the solution will be far more effective and cheaper in the long run. To better understand how to apply the methodology to building operations, consider the following common root causes, analysis strategy and case study.

Common root causes

Most root causes can be categorized into the 6 Ms: man, method, machine, materials, measurement, and Mother Nature.

The “man” category refers to a root cause that can be attributed to the actions of any personnel. Examples could include human error, faulty judgment, lack of knowledge/training, fatigue, qualifications, and medical condition.

The “method” category refers to a root cause that can be attributed to a process or a procedure. Examples could include wrong sequence of operations or torque setting too low on a drill while trying to drill through metal.

The “machine” category refers to a root cause that can be attributed to a specific piece of equipment or tool. Examples could include an undersized motor, the use of a fail open valve instead of a fail closed valve, or cutting a piece of steak with a butter knife.

The “materials” category refers to a root cause that can be attributed to material type and consumables.  Examples could include clogged filters, or use of gasoline in a vehicle with a diesel engine.

The “measurements” category refers to a root cause that can be attributed to how data is generated and used in the process. Examples could include a building automation system (BAS) deficiency, or a spurious signal coming from a sensor.

The “Mother Nature” category refers to a root cause that can be attributed to environmental effects.  Examples could include excessive humidity or rain. Note: Systems are designed to operate in a variety of environmental conditions. Their purpose is to control and regulate environmental conditions. Therefore, Mother Nature is only a root cause when the problem is caused by conditions outside normal operating ranges (e.g. a tornado).

Analysis strategy

There are a number of different tools that are used in RCA. The “five whys” method is one of the simplest and quickest ways to identify a root cause. It involves asking why repeatedly until the root cause is determined.

An example of the five whys can be applied as follows to the problem of a car failing to run. Why? The battery is dead. Why? The alternator is not functioning. Why? The alternator belt is broken. Why? The alternator belt is well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. Why? The car has not been maintained according to the recommended service schedule. Therefore, the solution is to maintain the car according to the recommended schedule.

What happens when one stops at the first why? The battery is dead. What happens when one stops at the second why? The alternator is not functioning. What happens when one stops at the third why? The alternator belt is broken.

Case study

A service provider developed and implemented a worksheet to collect and analyze data for RCA around repeat “too hot/too cold” calls involving a high-profile metropolitan office tower. The tenant’s floors had generated more than 300 too hot/cold calls in a period of eight months.

After obtaining as much relevant data as possible (e.g. actual temperatures, thermostats, valves, fans, dampers, etc.), and speaking with the tenants to understand their requirements, the service provider began asking the whys. The worksheet enabled the service provider to determine the root cause of most of the calls.

In fact, there were two root causes. The first was improperly commissioned tenant fits ups that henceforth failed to properly interface with the base building BAS system (machine). The second was that building staff would make changes to settings to resolve an issue in one office or area, but not consider how this would affect an adjacent area (man). For example, if staff changed settings in the BAS system to lowered air flow so one occupant would not get as much cold air, this may increase pressure to another area, actually creating a new problem, and so on and so on.

Identifying and resolving these root causes subsequently reduced the need to revisit the problem two, three, four (or 300) times down the road. Most importantly, the provider improved the tenant experience.

Remember, there may be more than one root cause underlying a problem. Don’t stop at the first one.  Sometimes, it takes more than five whys to get to the root of the problem. But by using this problem-solving methodology, facility managers can implement long-term corrective and preventative measures as well as improve the tenant experience.

Mark Orge has 20 years’ experience in the FM/PM industry across virtually every sector both as an outsource provider and a corporate professional. He is a Certified Facility Manager (CFM) with an MBA from the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business.