It was late Friday afternoon and the phone rang. Which is rarely a good thing.
There seems to a significant spike in field failures due to one component. The initial failure analysis work reveals the issue started with a batch of parts received about two months ago and the flaw continues to appear in subsequent batches.
Turns out that supplier altered a few steps in the assembly process, which they didn’t suspect would cause an increase in field problems for anyone.
Now is not the time to learn about the supplier’s reliability program. We need to solve the problem. If only the supplier could have prevented this issue from happening.
The way an organization addresses reliability is generally a part of the culture. It is how they make decisions. What information is or is not included when deciding on material selection, process changes, or establishing specifications? Do these decisions include the impact of reliability performance?
A simple way to describe the maturity is reactive or proactive. A reactive reliability program only addresses issues when a problem occurs. A customer complains: we work overtime to implement a fix. A reliability test reveals a new failure mechanism: we delay the launch till we can find a solution. The reactive culture may include the celebration of the hero that finds the solution quickly and saves the day.
Well, what if there were no problems that required saving the day? The other culture is proactive. They work to identify issues early and resolve them before the phone rings with a customer complaint. There isn’t any heroics, as it’s just part of the day’s work — create reliability products.
Which supplier would you want to work with? The one that only responds to complaints or the one that works with you to identify and mitigate potential problems?
When creating a new product or selecting equipment for a new line, we have to work with suppliers and vendors. In some cases, we just select a suitable part from a catalog and there really isn’t any need for an assessment. If the supplied part doesn’t work in our design, we have other options.
Yet when we need a custom part, or there is craft involved for a critical part, or it’s a new technology that provides a unique solution and brings risks, we should understand the capabilities and culture concerning reliability. The discussion will often start on technology topics. The discussion often moves to delivery and other necessary elements of a transaction. In the mix, we will likely talk about reliability.
Move beyond just the quick check on reliability, such as asking, “Is this part reliable?” or “What is the MTBF?” Instead, ask about what failure mechanisms to expect in our application and what evidence do they have to support the response? How can we estimate the failure rate given our use conditions? And similar questions.
Ask about how they make decisions and what role reliability plays in those decisions? How do they characterize their component’s reliability and how clear and useful are the results?
If they respond that they have world class customer support and can solve any problem quickly — they are just a good fire department.
If they provide solid research and physics of failure models, they may well have a proactive reliability program. They are likely to identify and solve potential issues before they occur.
Of course, there are systematic ways to assess reliability maturity and I discuss a couple approaches with details on how to improve your own program. See the short book Reliability Maturity: Understand and Improve Your Reliability Engineering Program for a full treatment of reliability program assessments. It also includes specific steps to improve your reliability maturity. You can use this same information to understand the maturity of your suppliers.
May you always work with mature reliability programs. How do you best tell which supplier has a solid reliability program? Let us know in the comments section.