What root cause analysis engineers do

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They root cause events, issues, and other problems, of course. Graham Rapier, "Tesla solar panels also caught fire on an Amazon warehouse, the retail giant said in the wake of Walmart's lawsuit", Business Insider 8/26/2019 :

"All 11 Amazon sites with solar from Tesla are generating energy and are proactively monitored and maintained," a Tesla representative told Business Insider. "Last year, there was an isolated event that occurred in an inverter at one of the Amazon sites. Tesla worked collaboratively with Amazon to root cause the event and remediate."

"Quality Root Cause Analysis Engineer", Automotive Engineering HQ 3/31/2015:

Introducing the Root Cause Analysis Engineer, the Sherlock Holmes of the engineering world. […]

Once all necessary information and resources have been identified, the root cause analysis engineer will use a variety of different techniques to root cause the issue at hand.


And there's the Root Causing Health podcast.

This is obviously old news — a perfectly normal example of verbing , mainly interesting because it verbs a complex nominal of the modifier-head type — but I've managed to miss it until now.

There's also an interesting choice of argument structure in this case: if X is the cause of Y, then X causes Y.

But if X is the root cause of Y, then it's (apparently) not the case that X root causes Y.  Rather, Z root causes Y if and when Z figures out that X is Y's root cause.



  1. Joe said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 8:01 am

    And there's the verbing of rootkit.

    [(myl) The web seems so far innocent of cases of anyone root causing a rootkitting, but wait for it…]

  2. KeithB said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 8:17 am

    Speaking as a Six-Sigma green belt, I find this abominable.

    I think a "root cause engineer" is simply the poor schmuck in the office who got assigned the nearly impossible task of sifting through the burned entrails and divining a cause.

  3. Lewis said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 9:57 am

    And the past tense would be? They rooted cause the problem, or they root caused the problem, or they rooted caused the problem?

    [(myl) The cited tweet agrees with my intuition:



  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 9:57 am

    As to the oddness of the argument structure, is there any evidence (or plausible basis for speculation) for an earlier verb "to root-cause-analyze" where "X root-cause-analyzed Y" would not have the apparent switcheroo? Because that would have been semantically transparent but also long enough to get easily clipped in practice down to "to root-cause."

  5. KevinM said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 10:43 am

    @KeithB. FWIW, I kind of like the idea of analyzing entrails, not to predict the future, but to figure out what destroyed the entrails.

  6. Chas Belov said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    @Lewis: I would past it as "root caused." I suspect that, like @brandonleblanc, I would wind up hyphenating it. I might have angst about doing so (or not doing so).

  7. KeithB said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 11:51 am

    That is what I was going for.

  8. Vance Koven said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 12:06 pm

    That usage root canals my brain.

  9. Ross Presser said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

    It's particularly funny when you remember that "root" is a synonym for "fuck" in Aussie slang.

    "Tesla worked collaboratively with Amazon to root cause the event and remediate." becomes "Tesla fucked Amazon over, but admitted their fault and then worked with them to recover."

  10. David L said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 1:14 pm

    This raises an ancient philosophical question — what is the difference between a root cause and a simple cause? In the example cited, the root cause of the problem with solar panels was determined to be "an event that occurred in an inverter." But that merely pushes the question back a level. What caused the event in the inverter? An electronic malfunction? An intrusive chipmunk? If the latter, why was that particular chipmunk nosing around at that particular moment? This seems to me like a question for the Scholastics, if there are any still around.

  11. Tim Leonard said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 2:50 pm

    @David L:
    Roughly speaking, the root cause is the smallest part of the implementation that failed to satisfy its design specification, or the smallest false part of an assumption about the design's operational environment.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 3:02 pm

    Tim, do not your definitions exclude the possibility (more realistically, probability) of planned obsolescence ? Consumer goods, in general, do not die because some part "failed to satisfy its design specification", nor because there were false assumptions concerning the operational environment. They die (in most cases) because one or more parts exceeds its/their intended operational life. Thus the root cause of the death is planned obsolence — were it not for PO, the manufacturers of consumer goods would very rapidly go out of business.

  13. KeithB said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 3:08 pm

    I think of it more as the ultimate cause.
    The device failed
    The device failed because the inverter caught fire
    The inverter caught fire because a 1/4 watt resistor was actually dissipating 2 W due to being mis-specified.

  14. David Morris said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 8:05 pm

    Another Aussie. I'm expecting a comma – the engineer will root, cause the problem and leave.

  15. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 29, 2019 @ 9:56 pm

    An Australian friend of mine, recently immigrated to the US, met his future wife at a soccer game, where she introduced herself by saying "I'm rooting for your team."

    David L: As others have noted, the goal of "root cause analysis" is not to trace causation back to the Big Bang, but to figure out which component has failed and/or which specialist subcontractor needs to be called in to do the repair.

  16. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 30, 2019 @ 12:42 am

    @Philip Taylor:

    In my corner of the engineering world, at least, one doesn't root cause failures that are more-or-less expected, such as the item being past its specified life time, or having had a frozen chicken fired at it. In the latter case you'd probably do a … whatever a non-root cause analysis is called to find out exactly how the chicken caused the item to stop working.

  17. matt regan said,

    August 30, 2019 @ 8:40 am

    As we say in the south, "Root cause or die!"

  18. Peter Taylor said,

    August 30, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

    And there's the Root Causing Health podcast.

    Which seems to actually be about root causing disease.

  19. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 30, 2019 @ 10:01 pm

    And not, presumably, about root vegetables that promote health.

  20. David Morris said,

    August 31, 2019 @ 7:10 am

    In Australia, we also say (or used to) 'be rooted' and 'get rooted' both literally and figuratively. In the 1970s, there was a comedy radio show which included a sketch of a (parody) gardening show called 'Getting Rooted'. As an example of the level of humour, they read a letter from "a concerned listener and great fan of Getting Rooted".

    Many years ago at a choir camp, we sang a choral piece which included the words "inextricably rooted". I can't find those exact words in relation to a choral work or poem anywhere on the internet, and can't remember any more of the words, except that they were something like "I am at one with the universe, inextricably rooted in all things".

  21. Thomas Rees said,

    August 31, 2019 @ 10:27 am

    The name of the England Test captain causes great hilarity in Australia at Ashes time (Joe Root).

  22. BZ said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 10:45 am

    The title of this post (What root cause analysis engineers do) caused a garden path reading for me, but when I interpreted "cause" as a verb, I lost subject verb agreement. Still, I thought it may have been a mistake and didn't entirely abandon my reading until the final word (do).

    Also, apparently this terminology hasn't made it into software development, that I know of, because I've never been asked to "root cause" anything (as my coworker just proposed, if you're on a UNIX type machine "root causing" something should mean causing damage because you're logged in as root).

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