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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. Solomon

Five Ways to More Effectively Facilitate Reliability Assessments

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Reliability assessments are applicable to all types of facilities and infrastructure. Reliability assessments will indicate a system’s single points of failure and generate mitigation actions that make success more probable.

Reliability assessments require all of the previous six facilitation good practices in the "Five Ways to More Effectively Facilitate…" series. This article discusses five ways to effectively facilitate reliability assessments by conducting pre-session exchanges, asking powerful questions, using exercises that engage, anticipating disruption, and controlling the tempo.

The foundations of systems thinking apply to facilitating reliability assessments 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." For reliability assessments, predefined steps, definitions, and prioritization of implementation actions are three key aspects.

Facilitating Reliability Assessments

A reliability assessment is a decision-making tool that assists in making trade-off decisions related to system performance and financial investments. The major benefit is a comprehensive understanding of the interrelated physical parts, human aspects, and interfaces. In the least case, reliability assessments will indicate a system’s single points of failure and generate mitigation actions that make success more probable. In the greatest case, a reliability assessment will quantify the probabilities of success and failure.

A system is a collection of interrelated parts that produce something that the parts can produce individually. Reliability is the probability that a system will perform its intended function for a specified time under stated conditions. Unreliability is mathematically equal to one minus reliability, which in turn is one way to express risk. Reliability is a term often invoked but poorly understood.

Customer expectations and desired functions drive reliability. These expectations and functions are termed “the voice of the customer” in quality management. Safety plays a meaningful role in reliability because customers do not expect to be harmed while obtaining an intended function. Few systems will be operated under the specified period of time if someone is injured or killed.

Reliability is concerned with the lifecycle because systems are usually designed for a “specified time” in years or decades. In financial terms, this equates to the “total cost of ownership.” Reliability requires considering all lifecycle aspects that impact achieving desired functions over the specified time.

Reliability can take many forms. Availability and dependability are closely related to reliability and often confused with it. Like systems engineering, reliability can exist at many levels, including system, subsystem, or asset levels. Good practice in systems and reliability engineering is to start assessments at the highest level and then work down into the more detailed components.

There are many tools associated with assessing reliability. These tools are also common to systems engineering, risk management, and quality management. Human factors or human interfaces are aspects of most physical systems. Human factors have tools and approaches that are not common to the other fields of practice and are often overlooked by many physical systems professionals.

Standard Process

  1. Establish the problem/function statement

  2. Verify and calculate future stresses (loads/demands/flows)

  3. Establish the system condition and asset performance history

  4. Perform system reliability analysis

  5. Evaluate the ability to predict unreliability and accept the associated risk

  6. Determine mitigation and improvement alternatives (decision analysis)

  7. Document and communicate (communication)

Use a reliability engineer to develop and guide the assessment. Reliability engineers have the technical training to perform a competent assessment and are familiar with working across interdisciplinary lines. The technical aspects are very important. Facilitation is equally important as technical analysis.

These are five ways to be more effectively facilitate reliability assessments.

Pre-Session Exchange

The pre-session exchange for reliability assessments should focus heavily on understanding the goals and objectives of the executive sponsors. Most executive sponsors do not understand key definitions and relationships of such terms as reliability, unreliability, risk, availability, and dependability. In some cases, the executive sponsor is looking for a risk assessment (or visa versa). In other cases, the executive sponsor seeks to understand the single points of failure or redundancy and does not care about reliability calculations. Another point of discussion with the executive sponsor is the intended or possible actions that may occur due to the assessment.

Pre-session exchanges with participants will come in the form of live interviews and follow-up calls to clarify details from document reviews. Like root cause analysis, there is a natural tendency for participants not to share full details or to oversimplify. Interview techniques are especially important when conducting reliability assessments.

If the “pull” from reliability assessment pre-session exchanges is systems drawings and data, then the “push” is creating an understanding (and a common understanding) of what the team will be doing. Many participants, including front-line reliability engineers, will have different definitions and understandings of the key concepts.

Powerful Questions

Most of the powerful questions when facilitating reliability assessments are related to understanding system configurations, data, and business processes. The use of imagination and clarifying questions is always in play.

Experienced reliability assessment facilitators also use powerful questions to prevent the evaluation team from oversimplifying the problem. One common issue is for participants to say “we have redundancy' because they have two of something rather than focusing on the interfaces and single points of failure. Another oversimplification is overcoming biases, including unavailability biases because participants have never seen the situation before or overconfidence biases because they perceive they overcame a similar issue in the past.

Exercises That Engage

Developing block diagrams, verifying block diagrams with fault tree analysis, and mapping the business process are three engaging exercises for reliability assessments. They are essential tools for every reliability assessment cause analysis.

Like root cause analysis, fabulous facilitators take a shot at developing the block diagrams and business processes in advance to identify obvious gaps and to help the group sessions move efficiently. The actual diagrams should be developed live with the participants (preferably on a whiteboard or projected on a screen in Excel) to enhance participation, create consensus, and minimize individual biases.

Audience response systems (ARS) are engaging in any form of facilitated session. An ARS is particularly powerful in root cause analysis when considering human factors in a group session. The Human Factors Analysis and Classification System (HFACS) breaks down the human factors into four levels ranging from human error to management system issues. Transferring the aspects of HFACS into a polling system driven through the ARS allows all participants to anonymously share their perspectives related to the sources and roles of human factors in the system configurations.

Anticipate Disruption

The two largest disruptors are a breakdown in definitions and an understanding of how the systems actually work. Keeping the written problem frame handy and providing a "cheat sheet of key definitions are effective ways to overcome the breakdown of definitions (and the boundaries of what the team is doing). Avoid direct conflict with subject matter experts in the live sessions over terminology or theory.

Theory is also one source of misunderstanding of how systems work. Unfortunately, many subject matter experts either want to be a designer or think they can do someone else's job better. Use projections and whiteboards to redirect contentious issues from individuals to a projection on a screen. Offload to a “parking lot” and debate the issue later. Establish a smaller facilitation advisory team to resolve the issue between breaks or sessions. If all else fails, have the team walk the system or create live system scenarios for everyone to observe.

Controlling the Tempo

Developing a reliability assessment takes multiple sessions. Multiple sessions require much work upfront documenting the details. The amount of a facilitator’s pre-session work will create more patience with participants as the process moves through team-based sessions.

Developing an efficient set of tools and visuals to make the process more engaging is essential. Block diagrams, tree diagrams, and data are fundamental components of reliability assessments. These tools necessarily require more than the modern twelve-second attention span that is the societal norm.

Having a structured approach is important to any type of facilitation. Participants need to know what they are doing, the sequence they are doing it, how they will know when it is time to stop, and what information will be developed or modified between sessions. Great reliability assessment facilitators continually fall back on the “system” of inputs, outputs, controls, feedback, and subsystem interfaces to remind participants what they have accomplished and where they are going.

Like facilitating block diagrams or tree diagrams, reliability assessments require a facilitator to know when to break or when to stop for the day, regardless of the scope and schedules. Reliability assessments require the best of the best facilitation know-how and instincts.

Thinking About It

Reliability assessments require systems thinking to understand how all of the interrelated parts come together to produce an outcome greater than the parts can produce on their own. Facilitating the many approaches and tools associated with systems thinking has much to do with meeting the physical, financial, and societal expectations of all that we do.

The “Five Ways to More Effectively Facilitate…” have covered six specific approaches and tools: root cause analysis, failure modes & effects analysis, block diagrams, tree diagrams, capital program prioritization, and business cases. Each builds to this point and each also stands alone.

Resolve to be a better facilitator. Resolve to be a better communicator.


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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