A common practice I’ve seen in organizations is to deal with field failures when they occur. This may occur when the mistaken assumption that no failure will occur due to ‘such an excellent design.”
Ben Franklin may not have been thinking about future product failures, yet his quote:
By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.
implies we need to prepare ourselves and our organization to deal with field failures. Having clear processes to deal with field failures is a best practice.
Failures will happen
Field failures happen. I really should make t-shirts with that phrase.
Being surprised by failures, blaming the customer for the failures, or ignoring them with the hope they go away, are all rather poor practices when failures occur.
Ideally, failures are rare and occur well after the customer has realized significant value from your particular product. The failures that occur out-of-box or within the warranty period will also happen on occasion even for well-designed, carefully manufactured, and gently shipped products.
A best practice is to anticipate all potential failures and avoid being surprised.
What is learned from failures?
Consider the information a customer is providing you when they report a field failure. They are alerting you first that they want what your product does (or their money back) along with the potential set of information around the symptoms, conditions, frequency of use, and more surrounding the failure.
With just the analysis of reported failures, often via a call center, you may learn
- which types of failures are occurring,
- which failures are occurring often,
- is there a regional or batch relationship with the failures,
as just a few examples.
With detailed root cause analysis, (yes, you may need to get the failed items back and head to the lab) you may discover a design flaw, a vendor’s part with a flaw, a missing component, or more. The failed item can inform you concerning both short and long-term corrective actions.
The field failure may also provide information about the business processes, such as the product lifecycle process, that enable the errors or poor decisions that led to the failure to occur.
Field failures are gold. You can learn from them, and should.
A best practice is to learn as much as possible from each and every field failure.
The culture around field failures?
How an organization deals with field failures is part of the organization’s culture. It is related to how decisions are made, what is prioritized, what issues garner attention and resources, etc.
A culture that prioritizes minimizing field failures – a proactive reliability culture – will also anticipate a few failures that are not economical to eliminate from the product. They will also monitor field failures closely to confirm the failure was on the list of potential or expected failures and at an acceptable rate of occurrence.
Furthermore, the monitoring of field failures will recognize new or unanticipated failures. These types of failures kick off more scrutiny and detailed root cause analysis.
The best practice is to minimize field failures with attention and resources expended during the development of the product, then monitor failure as they occur to identify the unanticipated ones. Of course, those new types of failures provide a means to learn and resolve them quickly.
Improving your organization’s practices
First, identify what practices and culture surround the existing field failures.
Second, work to establish practices, processes, and attitudes that focus on avoiding field failures from occurring, detailing which failure might occur and at what rates, and conducting detailed root cause analysis on any unanticipated failures.
The hardest part of improving your organization’s practices concerning field failures is getting the organization to understand that failures will occur and there is much to learn from them. In some organizations, this is a shift in thinking that can occur if you want it to occur, as it does provide a path to create reliable products along with all the resulting benefits.