You are on page 1of 2

The Reliability Center Terminology Clarification Center

Confusing Terms #2: RCA versus FMEA


In todays confusion corner, we will explore the terms of Root Cause Analysis (RCA)
and Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA). While two different analytical
techniques, they are often confused as being competing techniques when they are not.
Lets try and sort out this mess in laymans terms:
A. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) In RCA, we can utilize various techniques such as
fault trees, logic trees, WHY staircases and fishbone diagrams and a host of other
tools to analyze a specific occurrence or undesirable outcome. These techniques
will strive to use their respective cause-and-effect graphical depictions to map out
a path of failure from originating from the ROOT causes. Make note here of the
word ROOT, because this separates it from other techniques. Root means
getting past the physical levels of what went wrong and into the decision making
systems that were flawed. For instance when a process goes down because of a
failed pump, oftentimes people will merely replace the bearing that may have
failed in the pump. Root Cause Analysts will look into how the bearing could
have failed. They may find that the bearing was fatigued due to misalignment.
The misalignment occurred because the mechanic was never trained in proper
alignment practices and the procedures were obsolete that he was following.
Merely replacing failed parts is not RCA, understanding why people make a bad
decision is RCA!
B. FMEA FMEA is a technique that originated in the aerospace industry for the
design of new aircraft. This spreadsheet type of analysis breaks down any system
into its sub-systems and then searches for things that MAY fail. If these events
were to occur, what would their effect be on the equipment and on the system?
What would be the Probability of the event occurring? What would be the
Severity of the event if it occurred? Aggregating all of this information would
help us arrive at a Criticality Rating in case that event occurred. These
Criticality Ratings would be ranked from highest to lowest to determine which
were the highest risks that we should be concerned about. If the risks were above
an acceptable level, they would have to be re-designed so as to lower the
Criticality rating. The end result here is an assessment of risk of a system.
Many people confuse these terms and believe they compete against each other. However,
neither of these two techniques can accomplish what the other can. They are
complementary to each other. RCA can be used to understand how the high-risk items
could occur in detail. That way, when re-designing the system, the designers know
specially what to design out.

2003 Reliability Center, Inc. - www.reliability.com - info@reliability.com

804-458-0645 - 804-452-2119 [fax] - P.O. Box 1421 - Hopewell, VA 23860

There are many other variations of FMEA on the market today that include both the use
of probabilistic and historical data. But the outcomes are similar in the sense that
individual events within a system are assessed in some fashion, then ranked and
prioritized for further review.
The primary difference here is that RCA is typically done on specific events and the
outcome is the identification of physical, human and latent root causes. FMEAs are
typically done on a system to assess and prioritize the risks associated with that system in
the hopes of reducing the risks through re-design.

2003 Reliability Center, Inc. - www.reliability.com - info@reliability.com

804-458-0645 - 804-452-2119 [fax] - P.O. Box 1421 - Hopewell, VA 23860