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Exploring Reliability Culture
Years ago I had the opportunity to assess the reliability programs of two organizations. They made similar
products f or dif f erent segments of the market, and they both had about the same size an organization. Two
years previously, both organizations lost the reliability prof essional f rom their staf f s. Furthermore, both teams
were located in one building, one upstairs and the other downstairs, which made scheduling the assessment
Upstairs / Downstairs
Though the course of the interviews I enjoyed the conversations more with the organization upstairs. They
started on time, and were not interrupted. One of the f irst things I noticed was that the of f ice plants were
common, green and healthy. The engineers and managers knew how to use a wide range of reliability tools to
accomplish their tasks. For example, the electrical design engineer knew about derating and accelerated lif e
testing, and she also knew about the goal and how it was apportioned to her elements of the product. Each
person I talked to upstairs knew the overall objective and how they provided and received inf ormation using a
range of reliability tools to make decisions. They enjoyed a very low f ield f ailure rate and simply went about the
business of creating products.
Downstairs was dif f erent. The interviews rarely started on time and most were interrupted by an urgent
request usually involving an emerging major f ield issue or customer complaint. I didn’t see any of f ice plants,
just plenty of cof f ee pots. The engineers and managers knew that ‘Phil’, the f ormer reliability engineer with the
team, did most of the reliability tasks. “That was Phil’s job” or “Phil used to do something like that.” when I
asked about stress testing or risk assessment. Most did not know what HALT or ALT was and didn’t have time
to f ind out. There was a vague goal and all agreed that it wasn’t measured during product development, and so
was meaningless. The downstairs team had a very high f ield f ailure rate and the design team of ten spent 50%
or more of their time addressing customer complaints.
The only salient dif f erence between the teams and their history was the behavior of the f ormer reliability
prof essionals with each team. Upstairs, Mabel was a reliability prof essional well versed with a wide range of
reliability tools and processes. She provided direct support along with coaching and mentoring across the
organization. She encouraged every member of the team to learn and use the appropriate tools to make
decisions. The team became empowered to make decisions that led to products meeting their reliability goals.
Downstairs, Phil was another reliability prof essional well versed with a wide range of reliability tools and
processes. He directly supported the team by doing the derating calculations, asking vendors f or reliability
estimates, designing and conducting HALT or ALT as needed, and the myriad of other tasks related to creating
a reliable product. He provided input and recommendations f or design changes that would improve reliability,
and he was a key member of the team. Phil was not a coach or mentor, however, and as he moved to a new
role his knowledge and skills went with him. He pref erred to just do it himself and of ten f ound he had little time
to teach others about reliability engineering tasks.
The dif f erence between the organizations was in the culture. The dif f erence showed in who had and who used
reliability engineering knowledge. When the entire team has knowledge appropriate f or their role on the team,
they can apply those tools to assist making design decisions. Without that knowledge, design teams will use
the tools and knowledge they have to make design decisions. Without the consideration of reliability-related
inf ormation the design decisions are made blind to the impact.
Reliability occurs at decision points during the design process. When components are selected, when
structures are f inalized, or when all risks have been addressed. Near the end of any product development
process the team asks if the product is ‘good enough’ to start production and introduce the product to the
market. Having a clear goal with appropriate measure of the current design’s ability to meet that goal provides
the reliability aspect of ‘good enough’.
Every organization and product is dif f erent. The markets, expectations, and environments are all dif f erent. Yet,
every product achieves some level of product reliability. The culture is only one f actor, yet I suspect you would
agree that working upstairs would be pref erable.
Do you work upstairs? How is the culture concerning reliability?