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The Secrets of Successful Reliability Engineers

June 16, 2020 7:15:00 AM EDT

What does it take to be a successful Reliability Engineer? Learn how to better utilize RCA thinking, develop Reliability habits, and how to build a business case with your management team.

To increase your impact, you need to start thinking like an owner. Read on to learn The Secrets of Successful Reliability Engineers.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Develop Habits to Consistently Improve Reliability

Chapter 2: Utilize RCA Thinking, Every Day

Chapter 3: Think Like an Owner

Chapter 4: Avoid Time Wasting Activities

Chapter 5: Become a Leader

Chapter 6: Building a Business Case

Chapter 1: Develop Habits to Consistently Improve Reliability

Reliability is the probability of a unit performing its required functions, without failure for a specified time period when used under specified conditions.

Asset reliability is set in design, molded in production, adjusted with installation, discovered after operation, and scrutinized upon maintenance. 

As Reliability professionals, our job is to guide, optimize, and increase the reliability of our equipment, including ourselves. 3 great steps toward developing habits that improve reliability:

  1. Measure our reliability needs
  2. Measure our ability to meet the reliability need
  3. Measure our successes (then repeat)

1. Measuring our Reliability needs

The level of support we receive as a Reliability Engineer is directly correlated to how our management perceives the importance of our work.

There are many ways to measure Reliability needs (Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) & Operating Equipment Effectiveness (OEE)) but the most important measurements are the ones our leadership team cares about the most.

Our top level of leadership is dealing with problems everyday based on $$. The more we are able to clearly connect Reliability with $$, and have been able to communicate that correlation effectively, the easier our job will become.

2. Measuring our ability to meet the Reliability need.

Once the need is measured, we can now assess our department’s strengths and weaknesses to decide how to most effectively meet that need.

Knowing our team, building relationships, and creating buy-in with our direct reports and management, provides us with more options with which to work.  This allows us to think outside the proverbial box to seek solutions to long-standing problems.

3. Measuring our successes.

As we get better at clearly measuring the leading and lagging indicators of our reliability program, we will be able to more easily and quickly identify areas of improvement for our next iteration.

We can use these indicators to communicate with our leadership, what we recommend doing to increase their ROI. Remember to clearly connect reliability with $$, and ideally do so in an engaging way:

  • Compare our data to other similar companies to understand if we are doing better or worse.
  • Use historical data to show improvements or declines at our plant.
  • Highlight significant changes to show the effect they’ve had on our data.
  • Project data to show what $$ would be, if our top 3 issues were solved and eliminated!

Chapter 2: Utilize RCA Thinking, Every Day

Properly understanding RCA problem-solving methods and the analytical tools the function within it, will be instrumental to our journey in becoming a better Reliability Engineer.

While a robust RCA process is best approached with a team and addressing clear goals and problems, RCA thinking is a helpful tool for approaching daily problems we will encounter in our jobs.

Many problems we will need to solve are ones we aren’t even aware of. They may be small enough that they’re effectively invisible to the organization until they visibly surface at the most inopportune times. Good Reliability Engineers will prioritize and solve these problems systematically as they appear, but great Reliability Engineers will utilize RCA thinking to catch the “issues” before they ever become a “problem” (i.e. - proaction).

One of the hardest parts about RCA thinking is the ability (or inability) to communicate effectively with others. In the Reliability profession we pride ourselves on our ability to effectively and efficiently communicate what we want. Our messaging is short, concise and clear. We are astutely aware of the possibility of misinterpretation, especially when we write procedures or instructions. Not everyone thinks or communicates in this way though, so as we seek to drive change in our organization, putting ourselves in the shoes of decision makers, we can go a long way to communicate effectively and create lasting change.


Chapter 3: Think Like an Owner

1. Invest in relationships

“Networking” and developing good relationships with our site's leadership, managers, and departments, will go a long way toward creating buy-in and furthering our own initiatives.

One of the most common failures of a Reliability process is implementation stemming from the lack of buy-in created by sub-par communication, that could most easily and quickly be resolved with improved relationships.

2. Put Out Fires

If we are feeling stuck, we’re most likely not effectively identifying issues and solving problems in our organization. While most large organizations don’t reward questioning norms and pushing for change, becoming known as a person who finds and solves problems will be the most important reputation we can build as a Reliability Engineer.

3. Think Outside the Box

Organizations tend to develop comfort zones, becoming ingrained in “we’ve always done it that way” attitudes. Challenging base assumptions, approaching problems creatively, and keeping ROI at the forefront of our focus, are great ways to think like an owner, and communicate in a way that drives change.

Chapter 4: Avoid Time Wasting Activities

Josh Rothenberg, a reliability expert at Life Cycle Engineering, talks about the importance of accelerating the reliability process to ensure the maximum benefit in the shortest time. Here are 3 reasons we often see Reliability Engineers hindered and stuck wasting time.

1. Lack of Goals

A lack of overall goals for our Reliability program is the top reason we’ll see inefficiency and waste. With so many responsibilities, a Reliability Engineer is often left wondering, “where do I start?”

We and our leadership should determine together where the priorities and goals are for our Reliability program. Once these are defined, we’ll be able to clearly address the most critical issues first and put off secondary issues for later without hesitation.

These goals and methodology can be understood at all levels of our organization with clearly defined dates and ownership responsible for each item of completion.

If our leadership and team aren’t clear on the goals, everyone is left wondering why they are spending extra time and effort on a new initiative without a clear understanding of the intended results.

2. Lack of Knowledge

Getting educated on true Reliability Engineering is not an overnight event, but much can be learned from non-traditional sources.

The more we learn, the more we’re able to educate our coworkers and boss, which allows good Reliability practices to be established across all systems.

There are no shortcuts, but good systems can feel like a shortcut as we improve from a bad system or no system at all! Over time, with resources and learning, the process becomes less painful. But the more knowledge we can garner initially, the better off we’ll be positioned to succeed.

3. Lack of Tracking

If we don’t know how well we, or the Reliability program itself, is performing, how can we decide if we are succeeding? How can we make educated decisions about improving further?

Waiting for an annual review is like playing a game without a scoreboard and hoping that we win when the buzzer sounds. Our Reliability program should have robust indicators, both to lead and show us how we are doing today, and lag to show you how well we performed looking back.

Having access to industry-accepted standards gives a great starting place to make clear and concise indicators, and we can always customize more to make sense for our specific processes and organizational goals. There’s always more to do, but as we implement proper tracking, we start taking back control of our process, and ownership of our work.

Chapter 5: Become A Leader

Being a Reliability professional can be an exciting and satisfying career, but as we develop technical expertise, we’ll also transition into a role of relational expertise as well. Doing both at a high level will be imperative for our professional success.

Thankfully, we’ve been honing our skills for identifying and solving problems in our organization, and that method of thinking will serve us well here as we take on more formal and informal leadership roles.

One method of leadership that provides a challenge and purpose for Reliability Engineers at any stage of their career, is mentorship. Effective mentorship has specific goals, a timeline, responsibilities, and a process for dealing with conflicts and obstacles that may arise. 

Deborah K. Zmorenski, co-owner and senior partner of Leader’s Strategic Advantage Inc. writes about the leadership benefits of mentorship and is starting to see organizations also value mentoring as a way to enhance work life, performance, commitment and job satisfaction. Successful mentoring programs see measurable improvements in employee performance, retention, knowledge sharing, leadership growth, and succession planning.

While there is no one right way to effective mentoring, here are some helpful guidelines:

  • Mentoring programs are about guidance and facilitation rather than formal training.
  • Either party can stop the mentoring process at any time. There is no obligation for continuance.
  • The mentee has no direct-line reporting to the mentor. This fosters trust and open communication.
  • This time commitment is flexible as the mentee's needs change. Sometimes several meetings are necessary during a very challenging period, then none for months.
  • An effective mentor gives wise counsel, and the mentee feels comfortable speaking on issues that may be sensitive. Once this trust is developed, the mentor can give advice or assist with tough recommendations.
  • The mentee eventually grows to view the mentor as a confidant, one whom they can discuss not only technical issues but also political issues within the organization.

In the end, the field of Reliability is a way of life, not just a job. Its proactive principles will be applied in our daily lives, just as much at home, as at work.  Reliability professionals are passionate about proaction, foreseeing the future and preventing undesirable outcomes.  They thrive on understanding why things go wrong and strive on living a life of no surprises!!

Chapter 6: Building a Business Case

In order for an RCA to be successful, there has to be some type of bottom-line improvement. Simply clicking a checkbox from a list indicating your RCA is complete, is not a measure of success (or shouldn’t be). That just means the determination of causes may be complete, but we still have nothing to show for it on the bottom-line. 

When you start with the end in mind, change that leads to positive ROI for your business, you need to make sure you have accountability for the recommendations you make. Each recommendation should have a person and due date assigned to ensure each is completed, as well as a cost/benefit calculation, to measure ROI. Countless well-performed RCAs have failed to impact their organization because they were not able to effectively communicate and “sell” their solutions to the finance team and ultimate decision makers.

When we view RCA as a ‘system’, financially measurable tracking and recommendations are essential to communicate effectively in the language of the business leaders in charge of your organization. 

A well managed RCA should include leadership expectations for the initiative. Oftentimes this is correlated to the corporate dashboards and/or KPIs. When you have that in place and communicate results as solutions to the problems your leadership has identified, you can demonstrate the value of RCA’s to narrow the gaps of such corporate metrics.

I can assure you as a CEO myself, if I see such initiatives saving my company millions of dollars/year, I will continue to invest in such initiatives. As an FYI, our documented average ROI for our case study database is over 600% (as published in our books). That will raise the brow of any finance person.

Last but not least, are we reporting our RCA results back to those in the field who provided input to the analyses? If not, we should be. This is because they will see, they were part of something successful and they will be motivated to continue to help in the future as well.

In the end, an analysis is only as good as the analyst!


About the Author
Robert (Bob) J. Latino is CEO of Reliability Center, Inc. a company that helps teams and companies do RCAs with excellence.  Bob has been facilitating RCA and FMEA analyses with his clientele around the world for over 35 years and has taught over 10,000 students in the PROACT® methodology.

Bob is co-author of numerous articles and has led seminars and workshops on FMEA, Opportunity Analysis and RCA, as well as co-designer of the award winning PROACT® Investigation Management Software solution.  He has authored or co-authored six (6) books related to RCA and Reliability in both manufacturing and in healthcare and is a frequent speaker on the topic at domestic and international trade conferences.

Bob has applied the PROACT® methodology to a diverse set of problems and industries, including a published paper in the field of Counter Terrorism entitled, "The Application of PROACT® RCA to Terrorism/Counter Terrorism Related Events."

Follow Bob on LinkedIn!

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A manufacturing plant where reliability engineers perform root cause analysis RCAs.

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