Use and Abuse of Failure Mode & Effects Analysis in Business

On investigating about 80 deaths associated with the drug heparin in 2009, the FDA found that over-sulphated chondroitin with toxic effects had been intentionally substituted for a legitimate ingredient for economic reasons. That is, an unscrupulous supplier sold a counterfeit chemical costing 1% as much as the real thing and it killed people.

This wasn’t unprecedented. Gentamicin, in the late 1980s, was a similar case. Likewise Cefaclor in 1996, and again with diethylene glycol sold as glycerin in 2006.

Adulteration is an obvious failure mode of supply chains and operations for drug makers. Drug firms buying adulterated raw material had presumably conducted failure mode effects analyses at several levels. An early-stage FMEA should have seen the failure mode and assessed its effects, thereby triggering the creation of controls to prevent the process failure. So what went wrong?

The FDA’s reports on the heparin incident didn’t make public any analyses done by the drug makers. But based on the “best practices” specified by standards bodies, consulting firms, and many risk managers, we can make a good guess. Their risk assessments were likely misguided, poorly executed, gutless, and ineffective.

Abuse of FMEA - On Risk Of. Photo by Bill StoragePromoters of FMEAs as a means of risk analysis often cite aerospace as a guiding light in matters of risk. Commercial aviation should be the exemplar of risk management. In no other endeavor has mankind made such an inherently dangerous activity so safe as commercial jet flight.

While those in pharmaceutical risk and compliance extol aviation, they mostly stray far from its methods, mindset, and values. This is certainly the case with the FMEA, a tool poorly understood, misapplied, poorly executed, and then blamed for failing to prevent catastrophe.

In the case of heparin, a properly performed FMEA exercise would certainly have identified the failure mode. But FMEA wasn’t even the right tool for identifying that hazard in the first place. A functional hazard anlysis (FHA) or Business Impact Analysis (BIA) would have highlighted chemical contamination leading to death of patients, supply disruption, and reputation damage as a top hazard in minutes. I know this for fact, because I use drug manufacture as an example when teaching classes on FHA. First-day students identify that hazard without being coached.

FHAs can be done very early in the conceptual phase of a project or system design. They need no implementation details. They’re short and sweet, and they yield concerns to address with high priority. Early writers on the topic of FMEA explicitly identified it as being something like the opposite of an FHA, for former being “bottom-up, the latter “top down,” NASA’s response to the USGS on the suitability of FMEAs their needs, for example, stressed this point. FMEAs rely strongly on implementation details. They produce a lot of essential but lower-value content (essential because FMEAs help confirm which failure modes can be de-prioritized) when there is an actual device or process design.

So a failure mode of risk management is using FMEAs for purposes other than those for which they were designed. Equating FMEA with risk analysis and risk management is a gross failure mode of management.

If industry somehow stops misusing FMEAs, they then face the hurdle of doing them well. This is a challenge, as the quality of training, guidance, and facilitation of FMEAs has degraded badly over the past twenty years.

FMEAs, as promoted by the Project Management Institute, ISO 31000, and APM PRAM, to name a few, bear little resemblance to those in aviation. I know this, from three decades of risk work in diverse industries, half of it in aerospace. You can see the differences by studying sample FMEAs on the web.

It’s anyone’s guess how  FMEAs went so far astray. Some blame the explosion of enterprise risk management suppliers in the 1990s. ERM, partly rooted in the sound discipline of actuarial science, generally lacks rigor. It was up-sold by consultancies to their existing corporate clients, who assumed those consultancies actually had background in risk science, which they did not.  Studies a decade later by Protiviti and the EIU failed to show any impact on profit or other benefit of ERM initiatives, except for positive self-assessments by executives of the firms.

But bad FMEAs predated the ERM era. Adopted by US automotive industry in the 1970s, sloppy FMEAs justified optimistic warranty claims estimates for accounting purposes. While Toyota was implementing statistical process control to precisely predict the warranty cost of adverse tolerance accumulation, Detroit was pretending that multiplying ordinal scales of probability, severity, and detectability was mathematically or scientifically valid.

Citing inability to quantify failure rates of basic components and assemblies (an odd claim given the abundance of warranty and repair data), auto firms began to assign scores or ranks to failure modes rather than giving probability values between zero and one. This first appears in automotive conference proceedings around 1971. Lacking hard failure rates – if in fact they did – reliability workers could have estimated numeric probability values based on subjective experience or derived them from reliability handbooks then available. Instead they began to assign ranks or scores on a 1 to 10 scale.

In principle there is no difference between guessing a probability of 0.001 (a numerical probability value) and guessing a value of “1” on a 10 scale (either an ordinal number or a probability value mapped to a limited-range score). But in practice there is a big difference.

One difference is that people estimating probability scores in facilitated FMEA sessions usually use grossly different mental mapping processes to get from labels like “extremely likely” or “moderately unlikely” to numerical probabilities. A physicist sees “likely” for a failure mode to mean more than once per million; a drug trial manager interprets it to mean more than 5%. Neither is wrong; but if those two specialists aren’t alert to the difference, when they each judge a failure likely, there will be a dangerous illusion of communication and agreement where none exists.

Further, FMEA participants don’t agree – and often don’t know they don’t agree – on the mapping of their probability estimates into 1-10 scores.

The resultant probability scores or ranks (as opposed to P values between zero and one)  are used to generate Risk Priority Numbers (RPN), that first appeared in the American automotive industry. You won’t find RPN or anything like it in aviation FMEAs, or even the modern automotive industry. Detroit abandoned them long ago.

RPNs are defined as the arithmetic product of a probability score, a severity score, and a detection (more precisely, the inverse of detectability) score. The explicit thinking here is that risks can be prioritized on the basis of the product of three numbers, each ranging from 1 to 10.

An implicit – but critical, though never addressed by users of RPN – thinking here is that engineers, businesses, regulators and consumers are risk-neutral. Risk neutrality, as conceived in portfolio choice theory, would in this context mean that everyone would be indifferent to two risks of the same RPN, even comprising very different probability and severity values.That is, an RPN formed from the scores {2,8,4} would dictate the same risk response as failure modes with RPN scores {8,4,2} and {4,4,4} since the RPN values (product of the scores) are equal. In the real world this is never true. It is usually very far from true. Most of us are not risk-neutral, we’re risk-averse. That changes things. As a trivial example, banks might have valid reasons for caring more about a single $100M loss than one hundred $1M losses.

Beyond the implicit assumption of risk-neutrality, RPN has other problems. As mentioned above, there both cognitive and group-dynamics problems arise when FMEA teams attempt to model probabilities as ranks or scores. Similar difficulties arise with scoring the cost of a loss, i.e., the severity component of RPN. Again there is the question of why, if you know the cost of a failure (in dollars, lives lost, or patients not cured) would you convert a valid measurement into a subjective score (granting, for sake of argument, that risk-neutrality is justified)? Again the answer is to enter that score into the RPN calculation.

Still more problematic is the detectability value used in RPNs. In a non-trivial system or process, detectability and probability are not independent variables. And there is vagueness around the meaning of detectability. Is it the means by which you know the failure mode has happened, after the fact? Or is there an indication that the failure is about to happen, such that something can be observed thereby preventing the failure? If the former, detection is irrelevant to risk of failure, if the latter the detection should be operationalized in the model of the system. That is, if a monitor (e.g, brake fluid level check) is in a system, the monitor is a component with its own failure modes and exposure times, which impact its probability of failure. This is how aviation risk analysis models such things. But not the Project Management Institute

A simple summary of the problems with scoring, ranking and RPN is that adding ambiguity to a calculation necessarily reduces precision.

I’ve identified  several major differences between the approach to FMEAs used in aviation and those who claim they’re behaving like aerospace. They are not. Aviation risk analysis has reduced risk by a factor of roughly a thousand, based on fatal accident rates since aviation risk methods were developed. I don’t think the PMI can sees similar results from its adherents.

A partial summary of failure modes of common FMEA processes includes the following, based on the above:

  • Equating FMEA with risk assessment
  • Confusing FMEA with Hazard Analysis
  • Viewing the FMEA as a Quality (QC) function
  • Insufficient rigor in establishing probability and severity values
  • Unwarranted (and implicit) assumption of risk-neutrality
  • Unsound quantification of risk (RPN)
  • Confusion about the role of detection

The corrective action for most of these should be obvious, including operationalizing a system’s detection methods, using numeric (non-ordinal) probability and cost values (even if estimated) instead of masking ignorance and uncertainty with ranking and scoring, and steering clear of Risk Priority Numbers and the Project Management Institute.

  1. #1 by richard brakeman on December 6, 2019 - 1:55 pm

    Yes, as Bill states “people estimating probability scores … use grossly different mental mapping processes.” We approach circumstances based on the domain(s) that we work and think within. Facilitation needs involve rationalizing if not harmonizing our differences of perception and experience. Less formally, we confront this in ordinary conversation. Scott Adams described this in a folksy but relevant way in the book, Loserthink, where he acquaints us with the reality that we each think, within our domains, differently from others that practice in other domains; so communicate more harmoniously when we understand frame of reference of the others in our conversation.

  2. #2 by Ken Pascoe on December 8, 2019 - 5:05 pm

    Is one in a million a high probability or a low one? FAA will assure you that one crash per million passenger airline flight hours is a catastrophically high probability. Would FDA accept a drug that had lethal consequences for one out of a million patients? Would you drive to work if there was a one in a million chance you would be maimed in a traffic accident today? It depends on consequences as well as a lot of other factors. In the end, is the risk acceptable? That is an opinion.

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