Your Reliability Engineering Leadership Role
Leadership is not a position or title within an organization. It is an attitude.
You’ve seen the internet meme’s about the difference between leadership and management. There is a difference and while not everyone is going to be in top management, everyone can (and should) be a leader.
As a reliability professional, you are conveniently looked to for leadership. You are expected to use your knowledge and skill to solve problems. To help teams solve problems. To improve the reliability performance of your system and across your industry.
A Definition of Leadership
Noun: the action of leading a group of people or an organization – New Oxford American Dictionary
To lead is basically to show the way. Guide, motivate, and shepherd are elements of leading.
I’m not sure who said it, yet a great leader helps others become successful. If your customers are successful because of the product or system your organization provides, they become better customers.
If your manufacturing team improves yield due to the improved robustness of a design, they improve throughput and profitability.
If your design team finds and resolves reliability and quality issues earlier in the program, they have a lower chance of missing shipping and profitability targets.
The essence of leadership is about using your knowledge to help others be successful. As a reliability engineer, this often includes the achievement of a reliable product, yet not always. It’s not about what you, you personally want, it is not only about achieving goals or targets. It’s about helping others succeed.
Leading to a Problem Recognition
One role of reliability engineering is to ferret out the potential (and often very real) design flaws that will lead to product failure for customers.
The design review is one place to mention or suggest improvements, yet that is often too little too late. Instead, as a design develops ask the questions that illustrate risks of failure.
For example, if switching to a new IC package in order to reduce cost or use less space, how will the heat transfer from the IC? How will thermal cycling impact solder fatigue in the new solder joint design? How will it fail? And when?
FMEA and HALT are great tools to identify weaknesses worth further investigation. Building these and similar tools into your program, then making sure the FMEA and HALT occur as soon as possible, lets you and your team find issues to solve.
Often engineers design away from failure. They do want the product to work. Yet in order to design out failure mechanisms, they first need to recognize how the product is likely to fail.
Leading a Team to Solve Problems
It’s amazing to me how many people get involved in designing and assembling a product. Electrical, mechanical, and software engineers contribute their specific engineering talents to solve design challenges to create viable solutions to customer problems.
Maybe not so amazing is reliability problems sometimes occur at the intersection of the various engineering disciplines. Or a solution to a reliability problem may have solutions that span the range of engineering talent on the team.
Electrical timing issues may be solved with physical trace layout and design, or with changes to the firmware. Soft starting a motor may reduce the maximum load on motor mounts, thus permitting smaller supporting brackets to fit within the industrial design.
One role you encounter is the team leader. Once a reliability problem is clear, and none of the various engineering groups take the lead, you can step up to lead a team to solve the problem. Call a meeting with a cross-functional group and discuss how to best address the issue.
You can support the team by securing resources to implement a solution by quantifying the cost of failure if the solution is not implemented. By being clear about the return on investment you will likely secure the necessary support.
Leading Your Organization to Improve Reliability
Nearly every reliability engineer I know has a role to teach others about reliability engineering tools and techniques. From FMEA to ALT we help our teams identify and implement the right tools to create a reliable product.
Create the mechanisms to provide ongoing support for your teams. This may include an environmental test manual, a design for reliability handbook, a derating and strength/stress guide, or a set of critical questions every program must address as they consider product reliability.
Create the infrastructure to influence the everyday decisions of the entire engineering team. This may include the guides mentioned above, and providing meaningful feedback on field failures and trends, seminars or workshops on key reliability practices every engineer should employ, to creating or deploying data analysis, reliability modeling, and test planning tools.
The idea is to lay the foundation that permits reliability success to occur by the decisions of those across your organization.
Leading in Your Industry
Share what you know and what works with those in your industry. You don’t need to give away trade secrets, yet a set of best practices to analyze test data permits you and your competitors to serve your customers with better products. By raising the reliability expectations for your customers, places an obligation to meet them with your products, plus encourages your competitors to improve reliability as well.
Writing white papers on the reliability techniques to support reliability claims may help your competitors improve their reliability as well. In my opinion, considering all ships rise with the tide, improving reliability performance across the industry is to the benefit of all involved.
Write, speak, share with the intent to serve your customers and encourage industry-wide reliability improvements.
Take charge. You can lead from any spot in an organization. You do not have to be a senior manager or the CEO to lead. Find and solve problems, improve the ability of your organization and industry to create reliable products.
It really is your approach to accomplishing your work that makes the difference. You can work to help your team, your project, your organization, and your industry create products and systems that exceed customer reliability expectations.
To start, look for an opportunity to make someone else successful as they improve reliability performance. With a little practice, your confidence that you can affect change and make a difference will grow.
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