Ask the Experts: Prioritization
“Get on the Bus!” is US Coast Guard Electricians Mate Second Class Paul Frantz’s artistic interpretation of a key take-away about prioritization. Without buy-in from the implementation team, prioritization in the planning phase will simply die when no one gets on the bus.
This month’s Ask the Experts is a one-on-one lightning round with Tim Adams. Tim has worked in several industry sectors, including oil & gas. aerospace, and local government. He is an ASQ Certified Reliability Engineer (CRE) and the technical editor of "KSC Reliability," a website for the practitioner in engineering assurance. In his day job, Tim serves as a senior quantitative analyst with a specialty in Reliability and Risk Engineering for the NASA Kennedy Space Center. His formal education is in mathematics, education, and management.
We were pleased to have John Rider moderate the conversation. John has more than 25 years of experience in the pharmaceuticals industry. His roles have included plant engineering manager, director of maintenance, control systems group manager, principal process engineer, validation engineer, and quality engineer. John received his BS in mechanical engineering for the Georgia institute of Technology and his MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Prioritization is applied every day to projects and activities related capital improvements, operations & maintenance, and business processes. Some cost-effective, highly valued, and standard tools are related to Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Prioritization, Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) Improvements, Project Management Information Systems (PMIS) Improvements, Billing System improvements, Root Cause Analysis (RCA) Mitigation Activities, Preventative Maintenance (PM) Program Optimization, Condition Assessment, and Risk-Based Facility Improvements.
Do most organizations have formal methods for prioritizing activities? Should they?
JD: All organizations have some forms of prioritization. Most prioritization happens on a very informal basis in most organizations.
TA: I was going to say ‘no’ but JD is probably right. Organizations make decisions and use some way to rank and prioritize even if their method is not fully understood. I have just not seen a lot of formal ones. But that may be because I have always been one to help create them.
JD: When you don’t get the buy-in, then people don’t see how the prioritization is happening. They have to guess where the priorities are coming from.
TA: Yes, definitely. Ideally you would have a formal system, a black box, and some artificial intelligence to help you. You should have something formal, but many organizations do not.
Why is having a formal method of prioritization important?
TA: Everyone wants to know how. You want people to respect it and not bring it down.
JD: It is one thing to come down with orders of what to do next. To have buy-in in implementation, the people must be involved.
TA: There is a lot of tools and techniques – if there is not understanding by the people on how you are making the prioritization decisions, then you are in trouble.
JD: Participation and buy-in is also a reason many organizations struggle with standardized prioritization approaches. It sounds easy in concept to establish frameworks from above, but they really need to be somewhat flexible to respond to participate needs.
Should you use the same method for prioritizing different areas such as capital improvements, maintenance activities, and business process improvements?
JD: Many of the fundamentals are the same. I think that is essential to keep in mind. For big capital projects, we tend to use multi-criteria, detailed methods because the decisions feel big. Oftentimes in maintenance and operations, we tend to be less formal.
TA: We tend to use many of the same fundamentals. The difference is that we often cut the data differently and are less formal. Sometimes with standardization, we tend to throw the reports over the fence. The only way to get buy-in is to involve people. You do not need to get too fancy and leave people behind. Very seldom is there a method that applies to everything.
JD: Yes, and sometimes we do not want a standard process. We sometimes like to do it different because we want to get what we want. It is not disorganization; it is stacking the deck to get what we want.
TA: People change the methods to fit their biases which includes looking at only the data that they think is important. Many times, the prioritization decisions are made based on the delta between what you have and what you want. And that is a legitimate metric.
What is your favorite method to use when do prioritization?
TA: I like to use a trend analysis with Laplace test scores. It creates a pseudo-measure of risk that has at least three dimensions for failures or reported problems.
JD: I have used a lot of complex methods over the years, but Ranking is my favorite. This is the best way to get with front-line staff, build a list, and rank them. In a quick amount of time, you can get 80% of what you should be doing.
TA: Are you saying just 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.
JD: Yes. And I love the complex methods. The reality is that they do take time, and you do lose some people in the complex process. The simple methods often come out with similar answers, in less time, with more front-line buy-in. Whether you use complex or simple methods, you still need judgement and some adjustment on the back end.
TA: Start simple first. Often, I am asked “why don’t you use my method?” I usually ask back “how will it change your course of action?” Many times, the simple methods get you to a similar point as the complex methods. That said, I do like to use multiple methods and multiple degrees of complexity.
What is the most common mistake(s) that you see when organizations do prioritization?
JD: The leader does not get the boss’s boss to get buy-in. The team is happy, but we did not meet expectations.
TA: Too much focus on the perfect quantitative answer instead of the best qualitative answer. We do not necessarily need a perfect little q, the quantitative answer, just one that solves the big Q, the qualitative answer. We just need little q to shake hands with big Q. I do not try to find the perfect numbers, just to help make good decisions.
JD: That is a great one. And we both come from very quantitative places. That surprise me from two other experts from the pharma and aerospace industries.
TA: I claim that the people that come to the meeting don’t have all the quantitative stuff. They do not have the numbers, they didn’t analyze them if they did, or don’t know how to do it correctly. So, they end up sitting there with only what we call their decision styles. They really end up with weighting against their values.
Both of you do a lot with reliability and risk. How is the best way to prioritize the results of a root cause analysis or an after-event analysis?
TA: You can do the simple stuff by just ranking the things in a serial system that have the greatest impact on reliability. That is probably the way most organizations do it.
JD: I have a couple tools. Ultimately root cause comes down to cause and effect and that must be tied back to values. I think that is where we often end up, regardless of the more advanced or complicated methods we use.
TA: A complex analytical method such as probabilistic risk analysis (PRA) uses software like SAPHIRE (reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAPHIRE). PRA typically uses an event tree to describe how various components of the system respond to an undesired event. The failure state of the component is described by fault tree that is connected to a leg of the event tree (reference: https://kscddms.ksc.nasa.gov/Reliability/storyboard.html?diagram=13).
JD: Technical people tend to have technical answers. Business people tend to have business process answers. You have to merge the human and the equipment actions together to win the battle. Prioritize your activities holistically.
Sometimes a team will develop a prioritized list, and superiors farther up the line will change it. Is this to be expected? What can be done to minimize this occurrence?
JD: Organizations do not run as democracies. At nearly all levels, most of us function in teams and collectively as technical advisors to decision makers.
TA: Keeping aligned with the ultimate decision maker is extremely important. I have often got half-way through an analysis and have been told that what has been done to that point is sufficient. That is okay because meeting the decision maker’s needs is what matters.
JD: Specifically, from a prioritization standpoint, maybe we do not want to minimize changing the prioritized list. Judgement is needed before a prioritized list is converted to action. I had rather have that intentionally on the back end that trying to manipulate the prioritization method to yield the desired results.
TA: That goes back to what I said earlier about finding the best qualitative prioritization and not focusing just on the perfect quantitative one.
Both of you have worked in many different fields. What has surprised you most when it comes to prioritization?
TA: I have been invited to beer parties and no one drinks beer.
JD: In other words, you were going prepared for one thing and it turned out to be another.
TA: Yes, I have been to more than one meeting where the guy leading the meeting said he didn’t like math or statistics. But that is what the meeting is all about. He says he does not care about the numbers since the topic of interest is an “emotional one” and not a “factual one.”
JD: With prioritization, everyone wants to be perceived as objective and, in many cases, it comes down to personal preference.
What is the best single tip that you would give someone who is preparing to lead any form of prioritization activity?
JD: Make sure you get the people most close to the action involved. They may not understand all the math or the science, but most of the time they get it right.
TA: I agree.
JD: I would also add to focus on the insights and understanding that is developed from the group. We often forget that and try too hard to defend a method or a number.
TA: No matter what methods you are using, make sure you are aligned with the plain English – the critical parameters that are needed to make the decision.
1. The best projects are where the project owners are actively engaged and want to find implementable solutions.
2. If they do not know where the bus is going, they are not going to get on.
3. Capital improvements, maintenance activities, and business process improvements have different timing needs. Timing is a reason prioritization cannot be standardized or too formalized across all applications.
4. You can present data all day long, but it really takes that emotional, heart-felt connection to get people to change their minds.