How To Distinguish Causation vs. Correlation in Equipment Failures

In the complex realm of manufacturing — where defects and malfunctions can disrupt productivity and profitability — uncovering the underlying cause of a problem is both vital and challenging. To perform root cause analysis (RCA) effectively, engineers and maintenance technicians must understand the distinction between causation and correlation.

Do two variables linked by data truly possess a cause-and-effect relationship, or are they merely coincidental and not actually related? This distinction lies at the heart of effective RCA. It’s up to maintenance professionals to recognize instances of causality vs. correlation (and vice versa) and to distinguish them.

Understanding correlation

Correlation refers to a relationship between two variables tending to occur together. Specifically, it indicates the degree to which changes in one variable are associated with changes in another. Correlation does not necessarily establish causation — just because two variables occur together frequently doesn’t mean one causes the other.

Understanding correlation is particularly important from a manufacturing perspective, where identifying and controlling independent variables is critical. For instance, you might track the relationship between machine speed and defect rate or the link between temperature and product quality.

By recognizing and monitoring correlations, manufacturers can identify groups of variables that occur independently yet are linked by an unseen root cause.

Uncovering causation

Causation refers to the relationship between an event and its outcome. It’s the ability to prove one variable has a direct impact on another. For example, if you run an electric motor at a higher speed than recommended and it burns out, you can directly link cause and effect: run speed to failure.

Establishing causation takes a thorough investigative approach — including thoughtful experiment design and controlled studies. Temporal relationship and precedence are key factors in determining causation, as are the consistency and reproducibility of the results.

Once you’ve established causation for an event, you can begin a thorough RCA. Tracing causation to the root helps ensure the original issue gets resolved.

Challenges in distinguishing causation from correlation

Distinguishing causation from correlation is challenging. You might encounter many issues involving causation. It’s easy to assume causation based solely on correlation, but doing so stunts the work-back process so crucial for RCA.

Manufacturers must rely on rigorous analysis to attribute causation and correlation appropriately. This may include using statistical methods to account for concurrent factors, utilizing process-control charts to delineate relationships, or experimenting to produce causative and correlative results.

Ultimately, defining the relationship between variables will be critical. Does one beget the other, or are they present due to an underlying factor? With thorough investigation and analysis, manufacturers can make the right decision based on real, reliable data — rather than making assumptions.

If you need help deciphering causation vs. correlation in equipment failures, you can always count on the professionals at Global Electronic Services. Contact us for all your industrial electronic, servo motor, AC and DC motor, hydraulic, and pneumatic needs — and don’t forget to like and follow us on Facebook!
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