Why do some FMEAs fail?

When time to market is an essential marker for success, design FMEA activity suffers because it is considered a time consuming distraction. It can be otherwise.

During my time as an FMEA instructor I had the opportunity to work with people from various industries. It was maybe the most interesting thing about that job to witness how different they are, starting from the their products, technology they used, organizational culture and in terms of R&D challenges  they face.

It took few such trips to realize something that I was warned about, by some more experienced reliability instructors at that time – that, as different companies are, the problems with FMEA implementation are surprisingly  similar.

Let’s look at the most common points against FMEAs:

FMEA takes time, I should be spending on important things

Why is that? The main objective of a design FMEA is to improve the design. How can you do that without identifying and reviewing  important design issues? Well, it can happen sometimes, if you focus too much on filling the FMEA form with the multiple ways your product can fail (how you overcome them, what testing you do, etc.).

This will become important later. But we fail when good team discussions about design problems are missing . And to have good design discussions you need to have the right people in the room discussing points of concern, like new technology, supplier quality, regulations compliance. Plus, this must happen at the right time – which is taking us to the 2nd most common problem:

It’s too late

If you try to put your most experienced designers in one room for 2 hours to discuss design issues when they already spent hours discussing them and they believe they have found solutions, it’s clearly too late. Unless this meeting will be more about testing that needs to be done – which is part of design FMEA outputs. But it is not the main objective.

It is important to realize that design improvement is happening all the time in R&D organization. Design FMEA meetings  should promote that process by helping the design team to get input from the most experienced designers – which is not an easy thing in busy companies.

But if the team has solved main issues – what is left is to document those findings in FMEA form. A formal meeting is not needed.

Failure to address problems from the past

If someone in the FMEA meeting points this out you are in trouble because it’s like forgetting to do your homework. What you need is some kind of database of quality and reliability issues from previous products. That means failures in production and failures coming from the customers using your products in the field. Typically such a database  is owned by the quality department. But what I have seen many times is that the accuracy of field usage data there is often poor:

If you try to use that information in FMEA and you don’t have a usable IT system (e.g. FRACAS) to assist you – getting and cleaning the data will eat 90% of your FMEA preparation time.

Clearly it’s not always possible to obtain detailed information about field usage of our products. But  if you ask yourself if your organization at least tried to capture the finer details mentioned above I bet the majority  of you will be in doubt. And I believe all of you can see that good design FMEA is just one of many places where having robust field data is essential.

FMEA and Reliability Culture

I have seen companies building high quality and reliable products that have poor FMEA process. But I have yet to see one with good design FMEA meetings and poor products coming out of it. Good design FMEA is a sign that good design thinking is present in R&D organization. It is a sign of the adoption of reliability culture. If you think your organization is far from that picture, start from improving these areas:

One final thought about the FMEA – if you want it to become part of your R&D process, rather than a single project.  I strongly recommend reading on change management models and develop simple strategy for FMEAs. Here is an example:

The last point is essential. Project participants need to see the benefits of well-executed FMEA. Only then, new FMEA projects will come.

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