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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. Solomon

Three Things To Avoid When Performing An Environmental Root Cause Analysis

A root cause analysis is a root cause analysis, regardless of whether it is for an environmental system or not.atter where you find a failure.
Environmental root cause analysis creates some special considerations; however, an RCA is an RCA no matter where you find a failure.

Root cause analysis (RCA) is a collective term that describes a wide range of approaches, tools, and techniques used to uncover the causes of problems. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) defines a root cause as a factor that caused a non-conformance and should be permanently eliminated through process improvement.

The international risk standard, ISO 31000, adds clarification that root cause analysis attempts to identify the root or original causes instead of only the immediately obvious symptoms. RCA is most often applied to the evaluation of major loss but may also be used to analyze losses on a more global basis to determine where improvements can be made.

Typical Environmental Situations

Environmental root cause analysis is relevant to a wide variety of situations. A few that I have evaluated include the following:

  • Intermittent dye discharges from an industrial facility into nearby streams

  • Algal blooms in lakes and ponds

  • Fish kills and aquatic plant damage

  • Regulated or emerging contaminates discharged in rivers and waterways

  • Sand blockage of a shallow-draft, coastal inlet

  • Sedimentation accumulation in streams and ponds from construction activities

  • Air quality impacts from commercial and land-clearing operations

  • Numerous regulatory violations related to surface water, groundwater, solid waste, hazardous waste, and air quality where a single source of responsibility is not easily identified

Three Things To Avoid

Equipment and business process failures are usually identified in a short time, whereas environmental failures are not realized for months, years, or decades after the first distress is experienced.

Environmental failures are often more related to biological and chemical interactions, whereas physical interactions heavily influence equipment and business process failures. Once failure begins, there is a steady progression and little self-healing in physical systems. In natural systems, there is a greater opportunity for self-healing. The sum effect is that symptoms are usually noticed earlier in physical systems than in natural systems.

The P-F curve used in mechanical systems has similar applications to natural systems.
The P-F curve used in mechanical systems has similar applications to natural systems. (Source: Aladon)

In reliability engineering, Potential Failure (P-F) is defined as the interval between the point when a potential failure becomes detectable and the point at which it degrades into a functional failure. The P-F curve is conceptually powerful in establishing condition monitoring technologies or predictive tools to detect these potential failures before they occur.

Regardless of how fast a failure occurs or how noticeable it is, a failure analysis is a failure analysis no matter where you find it. Good root cause analysis principles are the same for any type of system.

Three primary mistakes occur with doing environmental root cause analysis.

Too Much “Physics of Failure”

In physical systems, the concept of the physics of failure refers to the use of degradation equations that describe how physical, chemical, mechanical, thermal, or electrical mechanisms evolve over time and eventually induce failure. Underlying the physics of failure are failure mechanisms that essentially describe how something fails (for mechanical systems. corrosion, erosion, fatigue, and overload are the four primary mechanisms of failure).

Failure mechanisms shed light on how things fail but do not provide the causal relationships needed to establish and mitigate the root causes.

In all RCAs, it is easy to dwell too much on studying failure mechanisms. This is especially true when performing environmental RCAs because the environmental sector contains more scientists and researchers than engineers and financial professionals. The applied nature of the latter two types of professionals leads to a “good enough” effect that optimizes resources and time-effectively gets to the end game of reducing future failures.

One common mistake with environmental RCAs is spending too much time studying.

Too Little Structure

Most formally trained RCA professionals are in the manufacturing or healthcare sectors, where the cost of failure is readily noticeable and can be acute. Many seasoned RCA professionals have environmental RCAs in their portfolios, but they are not usually on top of the contact list of scientists and regulators.

Neither formally trained nor having ready access to seasoned RCA professionals, many scientists and regulators use (or develop) their own approaches for doing the failure analysis. The result of not using a proven RCA methodology results in spending too many resources, taking too much time, and, most importantly, not identifying the correct root causes.

One common mistake with environmental RCAs is not usually a proven RCA methodology.

Too Much Focus on a Single Cause

Environmental RCAs are usually driven because of non-compliance with statutes and regulations. Regulators, impacted parties, and their attorneys seek to place blame (and restitution) on a single party.

This leads to erroneous RCAs because, by definition, there are multiple causes of failure when a failure occurs in any system.

The problem is further compounded by environmental failures falling into the domain of regulators and politicians, who naturally seek to assign the blame and move on. The healthcare system is most akin to the environmental sector in this way; however, the healthcare system is more interested in risk mitigation and continual improvement of systems (albeit quietly).

One common mistake with environmental RCAs is not recognizing that there is always more than one root cause.

One Big Solution

The one big solution is to use a formally trained RCA professional with a standardized methodology. The process ultimately will take less time, require fewer resources, and identify the true root causes that lead to better performance and fewer risks.

Moving Forward

The three things that every science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professional should do is:

  1. Take a course in root cause analysis

  2. Identify an RCA professional you trust (you will need one at some point)

  3. Insist on doing a proper RCA when a failure occurs

An RCA is an RCA no matter where you find the failure.


JD Solomon Inc provides program development, asset management, and facilitation at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Contact us about our FAST (Frame, Analyze, Solve, Transmit) methodology for root cause analysis and our RCA experience in the environmental sector. Visit Communicating with FINESSE for communication approaches for issues involving complexity, uncertainty, and failure.


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