Vol. 12, No. 7
July 2010
PQ Systems
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A chance to prevent failures rather than cleaning up after them

A current spate of cartoons and commentary has lampooned BP, Halliburton, Transocean, and Cameron International for their apparent lack of response planning that might have resulted in more limited destruction and more timely control measures after the recent blow-out on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. A Congressional hearing likewise roundly criticized leaders of these major corporations for apparently failing to anticipate not only the possibility of a major leak, but also subsequent failures of so-called back-up systems.

This debate will continue to rage, no doubt, as the cleanup continues, but in the heat of this discussion, it may be useful to reflect on the possibilities inherent in FMEA, or Failure Mode and Effect Analysis, for preventing or responding to defects in product or process outcomes. Since no industry is immune to product or service failure, FMEA provides an approach that is utilized in all industries, from manufacturing to education to healthcare.  Originally designed for military use, the technology was popularized by the auto industry, but is clearly useful to any industry that experiences failures in systems or design.

“What could go wrong?”

FMEA is an analytical approach that is used in the development stage as well as operations management to focus on “What could go wrong?” with respect to a product or service. Teams identify potential failures in a system, and in the design stage, try to eliminate these potential failures as far as possible. The greatest benefit of FMEA lies in the determination of risk that it brings. In the operations phase, the goal is to anticipate “failure modes” and to address them using “effects analysis” to study the consequences of a number of potential failures.

Waiting for failures to happen and then analyzing what went wrong to create them is a very costly approach, not only with respect to response time, but to resources that must be dedicated to finding a “fix.” Many people’s health or safety may be jeopardized by delays in responding. Product recalls are one way of dealing with failure with which many are familiar; one can imagine the cost of such recalls to a manufacturer. The approach of W. Edwards Deming and other quality professionals is to prevent failures or defects, rather than simply detecting them after they have occurred. Intercepting and preventing failures before they affect customers is one goal of FMEA.

Brainstorming possibilities

FMEA does not wait for failures to happen, but brainstorms all possibilities, and then addresses each in turn. Design FMEA diminishes risk by anticipating and planning for possible failures during the design of a product or service. An organization’s responsibility would be to put in place appropriate responses to each identified failure, so these can be called upon immediately when the failure takes place. While the energy devoted to FMEA may seem excessive to some (devoting resources to something that may never happen), most would agree that the resources necessary to reverse the effects of failure after it has happened are far more substantial. (Think again of the Deepwater Horizon case, and the weeks that have been consumed with various trial remedies.)

FMEA was originally designed for military use, soon after World War II. In a way, it represents the kind of “reverse design” advocated by Russell Ackoff and others. By picturing a particular kind of failure, a team can work backwards to identify factors in the design or operation of a process or product that may contribute to that failure. The only limitations on the analysis are those of the imagination.

Tools support FMEA

In developing FMEA analysis, organizations utilize a variety of tools that are familiar to quality professionals.  Among those that contribute to an understanding of potential failures and identify appropriate responses:

  • check sheets
  • operational definitions
  • cause-and-effect analysis
  • software solutions

Using FMEA, failures are categorized according to their potential consequences, frequency of occurrence, and detection of the failure. FMEA professionals talk about “failure mode,” or the way a failure occurs; “failure effect,” outlining the consequences of a specific failure; “failure cause,” identifying reasons for a defect or failure to occur; and “severity,” or the seriousness of the failure and its consequences. A check sheet can support distinguishing these factors, and Pareto charts may help to identify frequency and severity issues.

PQ Systems consultant Jackie Graham, PhD, works with a number of organizations to build FMEA documents that record the efforts of the best team to go through a product or process in a detailed way, imagining every possible failure that might occur. Their thoughts are captured and used as a living document—to be supplemented, certainly, as new failure possibilities emerge. When things go wrong, this document offers the combined expertise of the best minds in addressing the failure and responding to its implications.  In the brainstorming process, Graham says, a number of “elephants in the room” are introduced and dealt with, providing yet another benefit to an organization’s successful product or service.

Charting key data

FMEA analysis will ultimately lead to the need to chart key data for specific effects, and to bring statistical process control into the picture. Clearly, spreadsheets—another form of check sheet—are among critical tools in developing FMEA analysis. Using an Excel spreadsheet, team members can utilize statistical charting software such as CHARTrunner from PQ Systems to create meaningful charts from the data to facilitate understanding and clarify key issues. Analysis of data can support examination of a variety of failure modes and opportunities to potentially prevent future failures.

While FMEA technology represents more sophistication than this simple explanation suggests, organizations find that the investment in learning and applying the techniques will be paid back many times over if and when they are actually needed. A helpful software product, FMEA Investigator is distributed by PQ Systems. The software provides one-to-one instruction on conducting FMEA analysis. An interactive, multimedia program, FMEA Investigator explains the purpose and benefits of FMEAs and provides step-by-step instructions for both process and design FMEAs.

Of course, the hope is that once FMEA has been utilized in the design phase of a product or service, its analysis will not be called upon to address subsequent failures. Like insurance, it may be something that organizations invest in, but hope they’ll never really need.

But knowing that a plan is in place must help lots of leaders sleep better at night.

For more information, go to: http://www.pqsystems.com/FMEA.php


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