What is the Difference Between Failure Analysis (FA), Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA)?

Updated: November 17, 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Recently, Reliability Center, Inc. received an inquiry from one of our web visitors asking the differences between three confusingly similar Reliability acronyms. We thought others in the Reliability community may also wonder what the differences are between Failure Analysis (FA), Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA) so we decided to share with you our view on this. Please keep in mind that the explanation contained in this article is strictly Reliability Center, Inc.’s viewpoint only.

Failure Analysis:

Stopping an analysis at the Physical Root Causes is typically where most people stop, what they call their “Failure Analysis”. The Physical Root is at a tangible level, usually a component level. We find that it has failed and we simply replace it. I call it a “parts changer” level because we did not learn HOW the “part failed.”

Example: A manufacturing plant experiences a breakdown in a machine due to a faulty motor. The analysis focuses solely on the malfunctioning motor, and the solution involves replacing the defective part.

Root Cause Failure Analysis:

Indicates conducting a comprehensive analysis down to all of the root causes (physical, human and latent), but connotes analysis on mechanical items only. I have found that the word “Failure” has a mechanical connotation to most people. Root Cause Analysis is applicable to many more than just mechanical situations. It is an attempt on our part to change the prevailing paradigm about Root Cause and its applicability.

Example: In a chemical processing plant, a pipe rupture occurs. The analysis explores not only the material failure but also the potential human errors or latent issues related to maintenance procedures. The emphasis is on mechanical aspects, but other factors are considered to some extent.

Root Cause Analysis:

Implies the conducting of a full-blown analysis that identifies the Physical, Human and Latent Root Causes of HOW any undesirable event occurred. The word “Failure” has been removed to broaden the definition to include such non-mechanical events like safety incidents, quality defects, customer complaints, administrative problems (i.e. – delayed shutdowns) and similar events.

Example: In a healthcare setting, a medication error leads to patient harm. The analysis goes beyond identifying a specific individual’s mistake (human factor) and also explores systemic issues like communication breakdowns or inadequate training (latent factors). It aims to address a broader range of events, not just mechanical failures.

AspectFailure AnalysisRoot Cause Failure AnalysisRoot Cause Analysis
Depth of AnalysisLimited to Physical CausesComprehensive (Physical, Human, Latent) but often mechanical-focusedFull-blown (Physical, Human, Latent) and inclusive of various events
Scope of ApplicationOften mechanicalPrimarily mechanical, with some consideration for other factorsApplicable to a wide range of situations beyond mechanical issues
Focus on LearningLimited understanding of HOW the part failedEmphasis on understanding all root causes, but mechanical-centricComprehensive understanding of HOW any undesirable event occurred
ExamplesReplace a faulty machine partExplore human errors in addition to mechanical issuesInvestigate systemic issues in various events (e.g., safety incidents, quality defects)

About the Author
Robert (Bob) J. Latino is former CEO of Reliability Center, Inc. a company that helps teams and companies do RCAs with excellence.  Bob has been facilitating RCA and FMEA analyses with his clientele around the world for over 35 years and has taught over 10,000 students in the PROACT® methodology.

Bob is co-author of numerous articles and has led seminars and workshops on FMEA, Opportunity Analysis and RCA, as well as co-designer of the award winning PROACT® Investigation Management Software solution.  He has authored or co-authored six (6) books related to RCA and Reliability in both manufacturing and in healthcare and is a frequent speaker on the topic at domestic and international trade conferences.

Bob has applied the PROACT® methodology to a diverse set of problems and industries, including a published paper in the field of Counter Terrorism entitled, “The Application of PROACT® RCA to Terrorism/Counter Terrorism Related Events.”

Follow Bob on LinkedIn!

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