When things go badly wrong, it's easy to say with hindsight, "We should have known that would happen". And with a little foresight, perhaps, problems could have been avoided if only someone had asked "What Could Go Wrong?"
By looking at all the things that could possibly go wrong at design stage, you can cheaply solve problems that would otherwise take vast effort and expense to correct, if left until the solution has been deployed in the field. Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) helps you do this.
More than this, FMEA provides a useful approach for reviewing existing processes or systems, so that problems with these can be identified and eliminated.
FMEA grew out of systems engineering, and is a widely-used tool for quality control. It builds on tools like Risk Analysis and Cause and Effect Analysis to try to predict failures before they happen. Originally used in product development, it is also effective in improving the design of business processes and systems.
When using FMEA, you start by looking in detail at the proposed solution (see the tip box below) and then you identify systematically all of the points where it could fail. Once these potential failures have been identified, you rate the potential consequences of each according to:
Using these rankings, you then identify the most serious threats, and then alter the design to eliminate or minimize the likelihood of the failure you identified.
Once you've redesigned your solution, it's worth repeating the FMEA to ensure that new potential points of failure have not been introduced into the design.
When using FMEA, it can often be best to draw expert team members from a wide variety of functions, so that you can look at the proposed solution from different angles. The purpose of FMEA is to uncover and assess potential failures, therefore the more thorough the investigation, the more useful the analysis.
The best way of understanding FMEA is to use an example. Let's use it to look at a proposal for a simple payroll process.
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