New Uses For Old Tools: FMEA

Jeff Cole

Periodically in this column we get down to an individual tool level to look at new and unique applications for what is already resting comfortably in your Six Sigma toolbox. This month we explore FMEA. Wander through the world of Six Sigma for more than 10 minutes and you’re bound to run into a classic tool called Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). It travels under several aliases such as DFMEA, PFMEA, EMEA or even PPA. They are all pretty similar in that their purpose is to take a proactive look at a process, product or plan, determine where the risks of failure lie and allow you to put into place risk mitigation actions.

Industries such as automotive, aerospace and electronics manufacturing live and breathe FMEA, but it’s not just for manufacturing. You can use it as a key part of your change management planning—both strategically and tactically. A street smart approach to improvement involves leveraging those tools you already know by way of alternate applications.

How FMEA Works

[If you’re familiar with FMEA please skip to below the graphic.]

Lesson one: It’s pronounced F-M-E-A, not FEMA. FEMA is the organization bailing out New Orleans. FMEA is the classic quality tool. FMEA utilizes a template similar to the graphic below (click on the graphic to enlarge and refer to the links at the conclusion of this column to obtain more information and a free Excel FMEA template). Simply following the columns, first list the steps in your process and then note various ways those steps might fail (failure modes). For each failure mode, think through and list the effect that failure would have on the customer. The shaded Severity column is where you place a 1-10 rating (higher numbers being bad) to note how severe the effect would be. For example a 10 = Hazardous without warning and a 1 = No effect. Next, brainstorm and list those things that might cause the failure and in the Occurrence column rate the likelihood that the cause may occur and trigger a failure.

List the current controls in place to detect or prevent the failure and in the Detection column score the detectability of the failure 10 = Almost impossible to detect; 1 = Certain to detect. The three scores are then multiplied to generate a Risk Priority Number (RPN) that will range between 1 and 1,000. The higher the number, the greater the risk your process has at that point. High RPN items are flagged, a person assigned to lower the risk, and their mitigation actions noted. Then that step can be re-evaluated allowing you to quasi-quantify the amount of risk removed from your process.

A New Strategic Use for FMEA

Traditionally, as part of a DMAIC or DMADV project, FMEAs are performed early on to zero in on risk areas for data collection and analysis. Later they are employed in Improve or Design to bullet-proof the new process or product design. Our new use? In addition to aiming an FMEA at the process you are studying, aim an FMEA squarely at the process of making this process change itself. Early on and all the way through to process implementation, you run many risks related to the human component of the equation.

Bottom line: Six Sigma process improvement projects often trigger significant changes in a business. FMEA can be your risk management plan for the human side as well as the technical. Consider these potential failure modes or risk areas for Six Sigma process improvement:
  • The Sponsor or Champion disengages or is ineffective
  • Sponsorship or communications and training don’t get cascaded properly
  • The wrong people get assigned to your project team
  • The people who must change resist the process change overtly or covertly
  • The change you are proposing goes against the corporate culture
  • Reorganizations or layoffs occur in the middle of your project
  • Resources get realigned or disappear totally
  • The organization has many other changes occurring simultaneously
Applying FMEA to effectively running your Six Sigma project allows you to proactively address these along the way rather than wait until something unexpected occurs and then try to work your way out of it.

Street Smart Tip: Tactical FMEA for Process Change

There are usually pockets of resistance to any major process change. One challenge is to figure out where they are and how they intend to resist. FMEAs can be used tactically as a communication aid that legitimizes people voicing their resistance. How? Go to a group of people whom you expect will resist. Explain the process change and indicate that you are concerned that it has some risks of failure. Facilitate the completion of a simple FMEA, asking for their help in determining how the change might fail and how that risk could be mitigated. Remember, in change, having something done "to you" vs. "with you" is a big deal. FMEA facilitates a way of involving those impacted and making it OK for them to voice resistance. This allows you to best manage a smooth rollout.

For many free resources on FMEA, please visit the FMEA Info Centre at: Also, the new FMEA Reference Manual, Fourth Edition is available from the Automotive Industry Action Group at