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You Can't 'Contract' Your Way to Reliability.

Updated: Apr 5

A recent student of mine was an engineer for a rail corporation. Let’s call her Liz. Liz kept asking me ‘What do I need to put in a contract’ to make sure my suppliers take reliability seriously? She kept asking this over, and over until I got the penny to drop. Liz eventually realized that she was the one who had to take it seriously.


We all have a list of things we take seriously – and they aren’t always what we say we take seriously. Liz’s suppliers are required to provide an FMECA report for her to review. An FMECA or failure mode, effect, and criticality analysis can be great at eliminating failure mechanisms before you start designing something. This means your first design is a reliable design, your production is not beset with expensive rework and manufacturing is a breeze.


A good FMECA involves a cross-functional representative team responsible for the design, manufacture, testing, and maintenance of a product, system, or service. These are the people that make reliability happen (or not). But it turns out Liz’s suppliers don’t know how to do FMECAs. So they subcontract the FMECA to another company who are ‘FMECA specialists.’ Or more correctly, ‘FMECA report specialists.’ And this company creates FMECA reports without ever bothering the design and manufacturing teams.

This is like paying someone to exercise for you and hoping you will lose weight. Liz’s suppliers were providing FMECA reports but not using FMECAs to make sure reliability was designed into the product. All because this is what the contract asked for.


I asked Liz if she liked how her suppliers subcontract out FMECAs. She had to stop and think about her answer because she was so used to it being this way. She eventually told me that she didn’t like it at all. She realized that it was more important for suppliers to own and execute good FMECAs. So Liz and I brainstormed.


What if you require suppliers to complete FMECA training that your rail corporation runs? What if you provide expert third-party FMECA facilitators for your suppliers? What if you required suppliers to include subject matter experts from your rail corporation in their FMECAs? Helping suppliers to take reliability seriously is you taking reliability seriously. A contract with paper ‘deliverables’ is not.


But this is where Liz hit a hurdle. She told me ‘My company would never do these things.’ I then said ‘Have you ever asked?’ She said ‘no.’ I asked her how much reliability was costing through delays and additional remediation. Turns out, quite a lot. I then asked her how much do you think it would cost to conduct FMECA training and provide third-party FMECA facilitators. Not nearly as much as the cost of unreliability.


I suggested to Liz that she write a business case starting with the cost of unreliability along with a plan for her rail corporation to take reliability seriously. I told her she might be surprised if she presented a cogent argument (instead of a document of complaints).

Does any of this sound familiar? Reliability happens when everyone takes it seriously. And that starts with you, the customer. Contracts are documents – nothing more. So if you are struggling with reliability, stop and ask yourself ‘Am I taking reliability seriously?’

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