Reliability HotWire: eMagazine for the Reliability Professional
Reliability HotWire

Issue 10, December 2001

Hot Topics

Fostering a Culture of Reliability

In order to be able to successfully implement a reliability program, there are a certain number of "up front" activities that need to be undertaken. Most of these activities are relatively simple, but they are vital to the design and implementation of a reliability program. It is like the foundation of a house: relatively inexpensive and largely forgotten once the major construction has begun, but vital to the structure nonetheless. One of the most important foundations to the development or implementation of a reliability program is the development of a "culture of reliability" throughout the organization.

In order to do so, it is necessary that an understanding is reached concerning the necessity of having a successful reliability program, and the program's importance to an organization's overall business strategy. It should be made clear that reliability implementation is not a minor "back room" activity, but an important ingredient in the financial success of a business. The emphasis on reliability must be balanced with other aspects of the business (such as customer satisfaction, sales, product features, and time-to-market) in order to maximize the financial success of an organization. This is illustrated in the following graphic.

The proper balance between reliability and other aspects of the business.

The figure on the left represents a balanced business plan. In the figure on the right, time-to-market and sales have been enhanced at the expense of reliability and customer satisfaction. While this might result in a short-term gain, the effects of lowered reliability and customer satisfaction may prove to be more costly in the long run, in the form of warranty costs and loss of customer loyalty.  

Through proper implementation of a reliability program, the reliability of any product can be measured, tracked and improved, leading to a balanced organization with a financially healthy outlook for the future. With this in mind, it is vital that everyone involved in the product's production, from upper management to assembly personnel, understand that a sound reliability program is necessary for the organization's success. This may actually be more difficult than it seems, as some organizations may not have the history or background that lends itself to the support of a reliability program. This can be particularly true in situations where the organization has had a niche market or little or no previous competition with the products they produce. In the past, their customers would have to accept the reliability of the product, good or bad. As a consequence, the organization may have developed a mentality that tends to overlook the reliability of a product in favor of the "damn-the-torpedoes, full-steam-ahead" method of product development. As a result, reliability engineering methods and practices tend to be viewed as superfluous or even wasteful. "We don't need all of this reliability stuff, we'll just find the problems and fix them," tends to be the attitude in these circumstances. Unfortunately, this attitude often results in poorly-tested, unreliable products being shipped to customers.

The first step in developing the necessary culture of reliability is to have the support of the organization's top management. Without this, the implementation of a reliability program will be a difficult and frustrating process. Adequate education as to the benefits of a properly constructed reliability program will go a long way towards building support in upper management for reliability techniques and processes. Most important is the emphasis on the financial benefits that will accrue from a good reliability program, particularly in the form of decreased warranty costs and increased customer goodwill. This latter aspect of the benefits of reliability engineering can sometimes be an elusive concept to appreciate. An old proverb in the reliability field states that if a customer is pleased with a product, he/she will tell eight other people, but if the customer is dissatisfied, he/she will tell twenty-two other people. While this anecdote is rather eye-opening, it must be put in a financial context to have the full impact. It is possible to construct a model that links reliability levels of a product with the probability of repeat sales. It is therefore possible to calculate a loss of sales revenue based on the unreliability of the product. This type of information is useful in educating upper management about the financial importance of reliability. Once the upper management has been adequately educated and is supportive of the implementation of reliability concepts, it will be a great deal easier to go about implementing those concepts.

However, one should not stop with upper management when it comes to educating an organization on the benefits of a proposed reliability program. It is important to have the support and understanding of the rest of the organization as well. Since the implementation of a reliability program will affect the day-to-day activities of middle management, the engineers and the technicians, it is necessary to instruct them as to how these reliability-oriented activities, which may initially seem pointless or counterproductive to them, will ultimately benefit the organization. For example, if test technicians have a good understanding of how the test data will be put to use, they will be less likely to cut corners while performing the test and recording the data. Overall, a reliability program stands the greatest chance of success if everyone in the organization understands the benefits and supports the techniques involved.


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