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A root cause is an initiating cause of either a condition or a causal chain that leads to an outcome or effect of interest. The term denotes the earliest, most basic, 'deepest', cause for a given behavior; most often a fault. The idea is that you can only see an error by its manifest signs. Those signs can be widespread, multitudinous, and convoluted, whereas the root cause leading to them often is a lot simpler.
In plain English a "root cause" is a "cause" (harmful factor) that is "root" (deep, basic, fundamental, underlying, initial or the like).
The term "root cause" has been used in professional journals as early as 1905.
Fantin (2014) describes the root cause as the result of the drill down root cause analysis required to discover which is the process that is failing, defining it as "MIN Process" (meaning a process that is Missing, Incomplete or Not followed).
- "The Present State of Medical Practice in the Rhondda Valley". The Lancet. 166 (4290): 1507. 18 November 1905. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(00)68499-4.
- Fantin, Ivan (2014). Applied Problem Solving: Method, Applications, Root Causes, Countermeasures, Poka-Yoke and A3. Milan, Italy: Createspace, an Amazon company. ISBN 9781499122282.
- Pitagorsky, George. The Zen Approach to Project Management: Working from Your Center to Balance Expectations and Performance. IIL Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 9780970827692.