Using the FMEA to drive your improvement activities

In two decades of driving continuous improvement in both private and public organizations, I am continually disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm surrounding the Failure Modes and Effects Analysis tool.

I was first introduced to the FMEA tool while working as an engineer in the automotive industry. The tool is a requirement of PPAP (Pre-production Approval Process), but often this was considered to be just another task that had to be done, and rarely was the time spent to develop a meaningful document. After receiving specific training on the proper use of the tool, and constructing several myself, I began to realize the power of the tool and the methodology.

I am of the opinion that the FMEA is one of the most underutilized tools in the process improvement toolkit. It offers a disciplined approach to examining a process, is simple to understand, and is a great launch pad for improvement. Here are just some examples of how I have applied this tool to process improvement with great success.

The FMEA as a framework to drive improvement

While working as a young Continuous Improvement Manager at a manufacturing plant, I struggled to get department managers engaged in driving improvement activities in their area. One department was preparing for the launch of a new product line so we set up a one-week workshop to develop a FMEA on the new process. After a brutal week-long session, we had developed a well crafted document that identified several high risk potential process failures. The team spent the next few weeks developing corrective actions to prevent these failures and we kept the document updated as we went. The new product launch turned out to be one of the best that the company had ever experienced. With scrap rates at record lows, and quality levels far exceeding the customer expectation the team got a lot of visibility. When the department manager was asked how he did it, he credited the FMEA process. Many of the corrective actions that the team developed were then applied to other processes.  Over the next few months we repeated the workshop for every department in the facility. The plant manager added RPN improvement to the metrics that department managers presented in monthly operating reviews, and the FMEA became the framework that each department used to prioritize and drive process improvement. Because the tool was easy to understand, and managers were expected to deliver RPN improvement, the FMEA became the backbone of our continuous improvement system.

The FMEA as a tool to address a specific problem

While working with a client in the tradeshow industry, they were experiencing huge operational cost and rework on a particular show due to exhibitors requesting changes to their booths when they arrived at the showsite. The show was a large revenue contributor and occurred bi-annually so getting a handle on the problem was a big priority. I was asked by the client to “do a kaizen” to see if I could correct the problem. I assembled a cross functional team and went about trying to understand the process. We created a process map and narrowed down the number of process steps that were likely to be where the problem originated using nominal voting. We then put together a FMEA on only those steps that we suspected were the source of the problem. The team identified over 100 different failure modes that could be causing the problem and we narrowed the list to the critical few using a Pareto chart. The team attacked the two process steps with the highest combined RPN’s. The next occurrence of the show (35 days after the workshop) delivered stellar results. Exhibitor requested showsite changes dropped by 46%, and total labor cost improved 22%. The team continued to drive improvements using the FMEA data and the next occurrence of the show witnessed another significant drop in requested changes and labor cost. After the fourth occurrence of the show, the total exhibitor requested showsite changes had dropped 83% from its baseline.

The FMEA as a project selection tool

While working with a Department of Defense client I found myself in a situation where Lean Six Sigma had been “forced” on a department director. His budget had been reduced based on the expectation of Lean Six Sigma savings and he was forced to put two of his employees into Black Belt training. Since I was responsible for training these two employees and was expected to mentor them through their first round of projects I was determined to find a way to get him on board. He resisted all of the traditional project selection approaches such as value stream mapping, value analysis, or process lead times, and was unwilling to identify any “quality issues” in his department. Needing some quantifiable metric to build a charter, I finally talked him into giving me a prioritized list of the top five things that keep him up at night within his department. Since there were multiple processes within his department, I assigned each Black Belt a process and one of their bosses concerns within that process. I directed them to build their respective project teams and assemble a FMEA to identify what process steps might be causing his concerns. The teams completed the FMEA and we used the cumulated RPN as the primary metric to build a project charter. Both of the Belts were able to use the DMAIC framework to lower the RPN within the assigned processes, while addressing two of their director’s top five concerns. Additionally, we were able to gather much needed data during the measure phase of the projects to build subsequent project charters. The department Director, having seen that this thing called Lean Six Sigma may actually work started to open up other project opportunities. The FMEA was the linchpin that gave us the needed traction while providing a quantifiable measure of improvement.

These are just a few examples of the many uses and power of the FMEA. I have used it to solve problems, drive improvement activities, select projects, and win hearts and minds. There are countless other ways to use this tool. Its simplicity, scalability, and versatility make it one of my favorites.

Preparing a FMEA that truly identifies the failure modes in your process, and drives corrective actions can be a brutal task. It requires a solid pre-work, a well selected team, and enough time to examine the process in detail. However, practitioners that are willing to put forth the effort can reap considerable rewards.

Until next time,


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