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Research Questions

  1. What is the best way to proceed with a root cause analysis?
  2. What data sources need to be examined to perform such an analysis?

Congressional concern with cost overruns, or breaches, in several major defense acquisition programs led the authors, in a partnership with the Performance Assessments and Root Cause Analysis Office in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, to investigate root causes by examining program reviews, analyzing data, participating in contractor briefings, and holding meetings with diverse stakeholders. In two companion studies, the authors analyzed the reasons for six program breaches and developed a methodology for carrying out root cause analyses. This report documents that methodology, whose key components include the following steps: formulate a hypothesis, set up long-lead-time activities, document the unit cost threshold breach, construct a time line of cost growth recent events from the program history, verify cost data and quantify cost growth, create program cost profiles and pinpoint occurrences of cost growth, match the time line with profiles and derive causes of cost growth, reconcile remaining issues, attribute cost growth to root causes, and create postulates. This study represents an important chronicle of the approach to use in performing such analyses — one that others may use in their own analytic efforts. In addition, it gathers extensive documentation on the data sources used to examine the six program breaches investigated.

Key Findings

A Method for Conducting a Root Cause Analysis Has Been Developed

  • Each program is unique but a generic methodology can be applied.
  • Recording bibliographic information for a data source archive is vital.
  • Analysts need to examine each program’s history, to include the military requirement, financial data, technical data, contractual issues, schedules, and the acquisition environment.
  • The methodology will iteratively improve the research focus.


  • Analysts should consult a variety of sources during their investigation of a program breach.
  • They should establish a permanent archive to record sources used, which will assist with future root cause analyses and maintain the sources for future efforts.
  • Analysts will need a way to search data sources, so a searchable database should be created.

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND technical report series. RAND technical reports may include research findings on a specific topic that is limited in scope or intended for a narrow audience; present discussions of the methodology employed in research; provide literature reviews, survey instruments, modeling exercises, guidelines for practitioners and research professionals, and supporting documentation; or deliver preliminary findings. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure that they meet high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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