The basics of FMEA

A ‘failure mode and effects analysis’ (FMEA) is a systematic, and most importantly, proactive method for evaluating a process or product to help you find out where, and how, it might fail.

By knowing this before the failure even occurs in the first place you gain insight into the impact these different types of failures could have, and you are able to take preventative actions to ensure these failures don’t occur or occur less.

Origins the FMEA method

The FMEA method was invented by the U.S. Air Force in the 1950’s in order to improve the safety of their aircraft. Several aircraft accidents, caused by fairly straight-forward mechanical failures that could have been prevented, drove the skunkworks team to develop a method for failure mitigation.

By identifying the potential failure modes and their effects on the aircraft, as well as the likelihood of each failure occurring, the Air Force was able to take steps to reduce the occurrence of failures and improve the safety of their aircraft.

In which industries is FMEA typically used?

Unsurprisingly – given its origins – the FMEA method is typically used in manufacturing and engineering, but it can effectively be used anywhere as no industry type, process or product is ever 100% fail-proof. In fact, the proven track record of FMEA has also made it popular in fields such as Marketing and Sales.

There are other methods that can be used to evaluate a process, but FMEA is still a widely used and effective method. Other methods include Six Sigma, Lean, and the Deming Cycle.

FMEA Varieties
While the FMEA is broadly applicable, there exist a few specialist versions of it that cater to the needs of particular industries. To list a few popular varieties of FMEA:

Failure Modes, Effects, and Criticality Analysis (FMECA): this variant of FMEA is used to identify and assess both potential failures and the criticality of those failures, and it is often used in the aerospace, defense, and nuclear industries.

FMEA (DFMEA): the most traditional form of FMEA, and it is used to identify and assess potential failures in the design of a product, process, or system.

Process FMEA (PFMEA): this variant of FMEA is used to identify and assess potential failures in a manufacturing process, and it is focused on process steps and interactions between process steps.

Systems FMEA (SFMEA): a variant of FMEA is used to identify and assess potential failures in complex systems, such as aircraft, vehicles, or medical devices.

How to get started with FMEA?

As an example, let’s build on the concept of FMEA in Marketing. Let’s consider a new product launch campaign. Before going live, you host a meeting where the following steps are carried out:

Firstly, the team would identify all the potential failure modes. Together, you brainstorm and list all the possible ways your product launch campaign could fail; lack of customer interest, poor product positioning, ineffective promotional materials, etc.

Once this is done, assess the effects of each failure mode that was brainstormed. The team should determine what the consequences of the failure would be, think low(er) sales, negative customer feedback, decreased brand reputation. As with the previous step, there are no wrong answers.

Next, assign a ‘severity rating’ to each failure mode, for example one a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 would be negligible, and 10 would be utterly disastrous. The rating should reflect the potential impact of the failure mode on the success of i.e. the product launch and the overall business objectives.

Once a severity rating has been assigned, you then rate the ‘likelihood of occurrence’. This rating should reflect the probability of the failure mode occurring. A scale from 1 to 10 is commonly used, but it’s best to mirror the scale used during the severity rating.

The third rating is the ‘detection rating’, this rating should reflect how easily the failure mode could be detected before it leads to significant issues.

Now to combine them all together and calculate the risk priority number (RPN) for each failure mode. The RPN is calculated by multiplying the severity, likelihood of occurrence, and detection ratings for each failure mode. Example: if we were to have a severity rating of 6, a likelihood of occurrence rating of 2 and a detection rating of 8, the RPN would be 96 (6*2*8).  The RPN provides a measure of the overall risk associated with each potential failure mode.

With these results in hand, you can then identify and prioritize areas for improvement. The team should prioritize the failure modes with the highest RPN and develop plans to mitigate/eliminate the associated risks.

Once the improvements have been made, the marketing team should then reassess the campaign to ensure that the risks have been reduced properly and try to identify any new failure modes that may have been introduced.

Keep in mind that this tool, like most tools found in the Lean or Lean Six Sigma methodology, is most effective when used cyclically.

What to watch out for when using FMEA

There are a number of pitfalls that should be kept in mind in order to make FMEA exercises a success.

Historical data can be a useful input for FMEA, but it is important to consider the potential for new or different failures that may not have been experienced in the past. Over-reliance on historical data can result in an incomplete and inaccurate assessment of potential failures.

Secondly, the FMEA process should be a continuous improvement process, and it is important to reassess FMEA results regularly to ensure that the risks and failures are (still) accurately reflected and that the necessary actions are being taken to mitigate those risks.

FMEA provides a ranking of potential failures based on the risk priority number (RPN), and it is important to prioritize actions based on the RPN. Neglecting to prioritize actions can result in efforts being focused on low-priority risks, while high-priority risks go unaddressed.

Lastly, FMEA is not just a paper exercise, and it is important to take action to mitigate or eliminate the risks and failures identified through the FMEA process. Failure to take action can result in the same risks and failures being identified again and again, without any improvement.