Technical professionals are often asked to “lead” teams through the application of assessment tools such as failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), Root Cause Analysis (RCM), and Reliability Block Diagrams. In some cases, you may be a department manager. In other cases, you are the subject matter expert. Sometimes senior management simply knows you are willing to do it.
The issue is not whether you are smart enough or the most personable engineer in the group. The problem is that you may have all the hard skills required to do the assessment, but you lack formal training in the soft skills. Most of us do the best we can.
This article provides some insights for doing better rather than just being adequate.
What Are You Being Asked to Do?
Facilitators lead teams to results, which in this case is some type of technical assessment.
Facilitation is defined as a structured session(s) in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all participants.
Leading people through predefined steps and arriving at results are part of the roles of a manager. Many organizations, and managers themselves, mistakenly decide to facilitate their own sessions. It is akin to an attorney representing themselves in a trial.
Fundamentally, leading teams in the application of assessment tools is facilitation.
Balancing Soft Skills and Hard Skills
Oxford University Press defines soft skills as “personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.” As an umbrella term, soft skills are associated with people and social skills.
Hard skills are technical skills that are specific to different professions. After World War II, the US Army referred to hard skills as anything related to the use of machinery. By contrast, the US Army defined soft skills as “job-related skills that involve little or no interaction with machines and whose application on the job is quite generalized.”
In Facilitation, Soft and Hard, the differences and importance of soft and hard skills are discussed. Reliability engineers need both.
The role of the facilitator is to guide the participants, not dictate or instruct. Furthermore, the facilitated result (risk management plan) must be created, understood, and accepted by all. These two aspects make the facilitator role fundamentally different from that of manager or subject matter expert.
There are a few basic responsibilities that every facilitator should understand and apply:
- Prepare in advance – “who, what, why, where, and how”
- Plan and distribute the agenda
- Define objectives at the beginning of the event
- Establish expectations with the executive sponsor and participants
- Guide the group in presenting and sharing information
- Provide closure and reiterate action items
- Facilitators can often get cornered into a wider range of activities, such as notifying participants, reserving meeting space, bringing snacks, and providing session summaries.
There should be a recording secretary and a coordinator for any type of multi-session facilitation, including most reliability assessment tools. Roles and responsibilities should be identified and assigned before the first session.
Avoid Information Sessions
Effectively facilitating reliability assessment tools like FMEA and Block Diagrams means focusing on the analysis with the limited time you are provided in a group setting. Avoid lengthy information sessions and data-filled PowerPoint presentations.
I prefer to have a dedicated one or two-hour knowledge exchange separately from the facilitated assessment. This approach helps bring everyone’s knowledge to the same point, helps everyone who has experience with the assessment application, and can be used as a point for data exchange.
There are two primary pitfalls with presenting at an information session that equally applies to facilitating reliability assessment tools.
One common pitfall is to avoid using an information briefing as a time to wander. Set a specific short presentation period (say 15 minutes), allow the speaker to have no more than ten slides and shut down the presenter if they wander. Remember, the time spent wandering does not equate to a more effective presentation.
Another common pitfall is not providing the background data before the session. The participants should be able to read the data in advance, request additional information, and be armed and ready for the analysis when they come to the session. There is no good reason to have a detailed regurgitation of past data.
Facilitators should provide background information in advance. If you need an overview of the data in the formal sessions, make the overview a brief summary and be concerned with looking forward.
Prepare for Disruptions
All facilitators should prepare for disruption. In particular, technical sessions have disruptions because of the analysis, collaboration, and strong opinions that are involved. There are three disruptors that reliability assessments share with another thorny facilitated topic, risk management plans.
A changing organizational context is one big disruptor that comes in the form of different definitions across the organization or among participants. Changes in how previous and current management viewed reliability, risk, vulnerability, and resilience are sources of this disruptor.
Another disruptor comes from other initiatives such as safety, security (physical or cyber), physical asset management, environmental compliance, and capital project management. More specifically, the disruptor comes from their sponsors and subject matter experts who do not want to change their approaches.
A third disruptor relates to how the analysis should be performed. A common debate is how qualitative or quantifiable different aspects should be. Another related source is related to scales, measurement, and data quality. A third source is how the assessment steps should be executed. Subject matter experts are strongly associated with this disruptor.
Technical professionals are often asked to “lead” teams through the application of assessment tools such as failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA), Root Cause Analysis (RCM), and Reliability Block Diagrams. The mistaken assumption is that you will be a good facilitator because you are the smartest person in the room or in charge of other people.
The solution is to take the facilitation role seriously by treating it as a dedicated, craft-oriented role. This article provides insights for doing the role correctly as a reliability engineer or any other technical professional.
- Understand the formal definition of facilitation and the role of a facilitator
- Develop soft skill and hard skills that are needed as a technical facilitator
- Execute the basic responsibilities of a facilitator
- Avoid wasting time the limited time you have with participants
- Prepare for inevitable disruptions
Facilitating technical assessments and their underlying tools requires bringing many different parts together for outcomes that the individual parts can not create. The foundations of systems thinking apply to technical facilitation and play to the strengths of reliability engineers dedicated to perfecting the craft.
JD Solomon Inc provides facilitation, asset management, and program development solutions at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Founded by JD Solomon, Communicating with FINESSE is the community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective trusted advisors and getting the boss’s boss to understand. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.
JD Solomon is the author of Communicating Reliability, Risk & Resiliency to Decision Makers: How to Get your Boss’s Boss to Understand and Facilitating with FINESSE: A Guide to Successful Business Solutions.