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  • Writer's pictureJD Solomon

So, You’ve Been Asked to Lead a Reliability Assessment

The success of Reliability Assessments depends on the quality of the facilitation.
The success of Reliability Assessments depends on the quality of the facilitation.

Assessing critical infrastructure and facilities is essential for maintaining performance as systems age. Mid-level engineers are frequently tasked with leading a reliability assessment with limited training. The good news is that you don't need to be a subject matter expert to be successful. But you do need a structured collaboration approach and a mental model to help you through the tough spots. Success rises and falls based on the quality of the facilitation.

Reliability Assessment Defined

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.

Seven Components of a Reliability Assessment

This is my standard seven-step process for reliability assessments:

  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)

Human factors or human interfaces are aspects of most physical systems. Human factors have tools and approaches that are not common to other fields of practice and are often overlooked by many physical systems professionals.

Facilitation Defined

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.

Group Collaboration Requires Interactive Communication

Two forms of communication are applicable when groups collaborate. The first is linear communication, which involves moving information from a source to a receiver.

 These "sender-message-receiver" models are common when information is shared directly from one person to another with less subject-specific knowledge.

Two-way or interactive communication occurs when message senders and receivers share information. The basic processes and components of a linear communication model are required - after all, each party must be able to transfer a clear message to the other. However, similar knowledge and multiple feedback loops are necessary for interactive communication.

Facilitators spend a lot of effort making sure participants have mutual understanding and multiple feedback channels so that collaboration occurs.

What is CATER?

The mental model CATER will help you recall the five ways to move any facilitated applications from good to great. FINESSE is the backbone of effective communication while CATERing to participants creates comparable knowledge and opens feedback channels for successful collaboration.

Five Ways CATER Makes a Difference

CATER makes a big difference when facilitating reliability assessments. I cover more than these five ways in training sessions. These represent one example from each letter of CATER.

Communicating in Pre-session Exchanges

Many participants will have different definitions and understandings of the key concepts. Pre-session exchanges allow a facilitator to learn the organization's reliability language and find out whether everyone shares the same understanding.

CATER provides a mental model that helps when reliability assessments get tough.
CATER provides a mental model that helps when reliability assessments get tough.

 Reliability, availability, and risk are three of my favorites that you encounter wide variations wherever you go. Costly (or expensive) is also a common word with very different definitions depending on who you talk to within an organization.

My favorite case example is from a multi-site mining company and its uncommon definition of Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). After three pre-session exchanges, I discovered that OEE had become a type of sport within the organization for over a decade. Different managers changed this key performance indicator to justify whatever they wanted. It became clear that the reliability assessment should not be anchored to this definition.

Ask Powerful Questions

The most powerful questions when facilitating reliability assessments relate to understanding how things work. However, facilitators and subject matter experts (SMEs) tend to blow through the basic functions that are the backbone of reliability assessments.

One great example I use comes from a pharmaceutical company. The assessment began as a root cause analysis and eventually led to a full reliability assessment to resolve all single points of failure. The most interesting part is that the sterilization system used a common autoclave (similar to a large pressure cooker) and was not complicated. The maintenance manager exclaimed at one point, "You are going to ask the most basic questions about every autoclave system we have ever seen!" He was right. And it made all the difference.

Anticipate Trouble

Many subject matter experts either want to be a designer or think they can do someone else's job better. Focus on a common understanding of the system; avoid direct conflict with subject matter experts in the live sessions over terminology or theory.

The example that most often comes to mind is from a reliability assessment I led for a wastewater utility near Charleston, SC. The CEO and COO believed that one pump station was more critical than the others due to its volume and proximity to a major waterway. Both had been at the utility for nearly 30 years and had built the system from the ground up. The trouble was that the staff had reconfigured the overflow. Everyone knew it but me (the facilitator) and the top two executives. But it was not the time to argue about it in the group session.

Engaging Exercises

Block diagrams and business process maps 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. However, few things are more boring. Facilitators should develop the block diagrams and business processes in advance to identify obvious gaps and to help the group sessions move efficiently.

Assessing reliability for a large water system is not trivial.
Assessing reliability for a large water system is not trivial.

A good example is from a major water supply system that supplies more than one million people. I conducted the reliability assessment in two phases because the owner believed the western part of the system was bulletproof due to its redundancy. It took us six months to get to the second phase. Then, it took me about six minutes with a rough block diagram to conclude there was no full redundancy. But the result in the ensuing team session was better as everyone came to their own conclusions as we worked through it on the whiteboard.

Manage the Rhythm

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.

The seven-step process for reliability assessments is one that I developed over the years with several colleagues. We could not find a better one in a book. We sometimes struggled when we tried unique approaches to fit different situations.

Reliability assessments are thorough and rigorous, but that also means they can be boring and frustrating to participants. You need a structured approach to manage the rhythm and the flexibility to adjust when you encounter low points.

How Do You Guide Reliability Assessments

Reliability assessments are among the toughest things for most technically trained professionals to facilitate. Remember first that you don’t have to be the senior subject matter expert to lead the assessment. In fact, you’ll be a better guide (facilitator) if you are not. Next, use a structured approach. And finally, have a mental model like CATER to help guide you through the tough times.

Excerpts from this article are taken from Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions. This article first appeared on Communicating with FINESSE.


Join us for the free April webinar on communicating reliability assessments.

Join CWF for April's free monthly webinar on communicating reliability assessments.

The systems thinking required to conduct a reliability assessment is not easily expressed. This free webinar will provide tips for addressing the three most important things that senior management wants to understand and a methodology for developing the report and presentation.

Two case examples will be used to demonstrate presentation structure and visuals that are recommended as good practice.


Communicating with FINESSE is the not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.


JD Solomon is a licensed professional engineer (PE), Certified Reliability Engineer (CRE), and Certified Reliability and Maintenance Professional (CRMP). is the author of Communicating Reliability, Risk & Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get Your Boss’s Boss to Understand and Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions.


JD Solomon Inc. provides solutions for program development, asset management, and facilitation at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Subscribe for monthly updates related to our firm.


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