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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. Solomon

Five Ways to More Effectively Facilitate Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA)

JD Solomon facilitating classroom FMEA on left and team examinign equipment on right.
FMEAs must be more than a paper exercise if they are to be effective.

This article discusses five ways to facilitate failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) more effectively by conducting pre-session exchanges, asking powerful questions, using exercises that engage, anticipating disruption, and controlling the tempo. The foundations of systems thinking and facilitation apply to failure modes and effects analysis because the analysis requires a group to establish the nature of separate and inter-related components.

Facilitation is defined as a structured session(s) in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all participants." As provided in the definition, the fundamentals of good facilitation are always essential, including having a structure for an FMEA that includes predefined steps and a process for arriving at results that are created, understood, and accepted by all participants.

Facilitating Failure Modes and Effects Analysis

Failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) is a step-by-step approach for identifying all possible failures in a design, a process, a product, or a service. It is a common process analysis tool (American Society for Quality, 2019).

There are many positive and negative aspects associated with FMEAs. One of the greatest negative aspects is the length of time required by a cross-function team. FMEAs are certainly a drain on short-term resources and their duration makes them boring. Effective facilitation minimizes these negative effects while not compromising the technical integrity of the analysis.

The greatest positive aspect is the understanding of system components by a cross-functional team of the people most close to the action. The power of bringing an operation to a common understanding cannot be overstated. Effective facilitation makes the difference in success.

FMEA subject matter expert Carl Carlson (, 2017) cites the following as basic skills for facilitating FMEAs:

• Brainstorming

• Asking Probing Questions

• Encouraging Participation

• Asking Thought-Starter Questions

• Active Listening

• Controlling Discussion

• Making Decisions

• Conflict Management

• Facilitator Interventions

• Managing Time

Pre-Session Exchange

In previous articles, in-person discussions, virtual discussions, and online surveys are referenced as viable forms of pre-session exchange. Pre-session exchange should also include discussions with the executive sponsor to confirm their goals, sensitivities, and expected outcomes of the facilitated session.

The pre-session exchange for failure modes and effects analysis can produce comparable results if done either in-person or virtually. The breakpoint is usually whether the facilitator intends to do a site visit to examine large and complex systems. Pre-session surveys are usually not sufficient unless the purpose of the survey is to educate participants on the scope and process of the FMEA.

In addition to technical background information, pre-session participant exchanges should identify any experienced facilitators (especially those with FMEA experience) and subject matter experts with comprehensive background experience with FMEAs.

The nature of the background information should be sufficient for the facilitator to draft the problem frame (physical and operational boundaries), draft the system function statement, preload some aspects of FMEA worksheets, and develop draft reliability block diagrams (RBDs) or process flow diagrams. The intent should not be to understand the system(s) fully or to populate all aspects in advance fully; rather, the intent is to enable the facilitator to have sufficient information to "hit the ground running" and not lose the attention of participants in the early parts of the FMEA session(s).

Powerful Questions

Great facilitators use imagination phrases like "Think about…", "Imagine…", and "Consider…." With failure modes and effects analysis, it is important to remember to avoid hypotheticals since the issue at hand is to recreate an actual event.

Opening questions that frame probabilities and possibilities are good. A weak question is, "How does a centrifugal pump fail?" A better question is something like, "Remember when you have seen other centrifugal pumps like this (brand x, y, or z) fail. Think about how those similar pumps failed. What were some of the similarities? What were some of the differences? Now, how does this centrifugal pump fail?”

Asking Powerful Questions is an essential FMEA facilitator skill.

FMEAs are both specific and speculative. FMEAs also require systems thinking because every part is analyzed separately, but some understanding of the inter-related relationships is needed to identify all of the failure modes and related characteristics. It is not necessary for an FMEA facilitator to understand all of the components and their interactions. However, asking powerful questions of the participants, especially subject matter experts, is the most necessary skill of every FMEA facilitator.

Exercises That Engage

An exercise that quickly engages participants is drawing a reliability block diagram of the system to be analyzed on a whiteboard at the start of the session. The facilitator should have a fully developed diagram as part of the pre-session exchange. However, drawing the block diagram one piece at a time provides an opportunity to engage (and clarify) that there is a common understanding of the system. In some cases, a participant will come forward to draw or re-draw parts of the diagram – great facilitators know that this is a good thing and embrace participants becoming fully engaged in the process.

Failure modes and effects analysis must be more than a paper exercise if it is to be effective. One simple exercise is to use a ball valve or gate valve to interactively demonstrate the FMEA process (pick one up at Home Depot or Lowes Home Improvement if you do not have one in your facilitator bag). FMEAs are preferably performed at sites where systems are located, so components that are part of the FMEA can be demonstrated (and preferably taken apart) as another hands-on exercise.

Anticipate Disruption

All of the previously discussed approaches in other articles to anticipate and mitigate disruption apply. These approaches include well-defined approaches for creating a “parking lot” of contentious issues, establishing a smaller facilitation advisory team, pivoting to breaks, not engaging in arguments, and projecting interactive information onto a board or screen.

Of special relevance to failure modes and effects analysis is handling subject matter experts (SMEs). The disruptions usually occur between different disciplines (i.e., electrical versus mechanical with physical systems and software specialists versus end users with business processes). Another common disruptor is from SMEs who operated the systems many years ago correcting current SMEs on how the system works (or should work).

Facilitators should use time to their advantage when disruptions occur.

Despite best efforts, disruptions will occur during the course of SMEs working together for several days on the ways things fail. Facilitators should have multiple approaches for handling the back and forth. The most important thing is to minimize hot emotions by focusing on the long haul. If there is a major criticism of FMEA, it is the time that it takes. Facilitators should use time to their advantage when disruptions occur.

Controlling the Tempo

FMEA sessions are necessarily long and detailed. They often occur over multiple days, so there will be an ebb and flow to the session, the day, and the week. Facilitator and participant fatigue is a reality.

The use of multiple facilitators is one way to control the tempo. In one sense, using a second or third facilitator is a humbling experience for a good facilitator; however, a great facilitator empathizes with the need for variety among the participants to hold their interest. Understand the value of additional facilitators – even those who may not be as good as the primary facilitator.

Another technique is to gauge participant fatigue and walk the site. Getting participants on their feet and seeing the equipment or processes is another way to control the tempo and mitigate fatigue. Seeing the equipment or process is usually necessary anyway, or at least something like it if you are doing a design FMEA. I prefer to keep the "walkabout" in my back pocket (off the agenda) and choose the right time to use it.

Another technique is simply knowing when to stop for the day or week. All third-party consultants have scopes of services and all internal participants have tight calendars. It takes courage, and some additional backup planning, to know when non-productive fatigue has arrived. However, getting results that are created, understood, and accepted by all participants requires flexibility.

Thinking About It

The foundations of systems thinking and facilitation apply to failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA). The five ways to more effectively facilitate FMEAs enhance a facilitator’s ability to guide the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all. Seek to make your FMEA facilitation better than most, or better yet, above all others.


JD Solomon Inc provides facilitation at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Contact us for more information about facilitation services ranging from Strategic Plans and Board Retreats to Criticality Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, and Capital Program Development. For more information on JD’s new book or to join the community of technical professionals committed to learning how to get their boss’s boss to understand, visit Communicating with FINESSE or sign-up for updates.


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