Decipher the RCFA Paradox

May 5, 2003
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What's the most common objection when the topic of Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA) comes up?

"We don't have time to do RCFA," is the cry heard most frequently. And the irony of that statement is that most people don't have time because they are too busy "fighting fires." In other words, they have time to continually fix things, but they don't have time to analyze why failures occur in the first place and take steps to prevent their recurrence.

When applied correctly, RCFA of chronic failures is a proactive pursuit geared toward eliminating maintenance work.

Again and again
Why is so much time spent working on the problems--reactive work--and ignoring the opportunities--proactive work? Reactive work undoubtedly takes priority over all other work, because at most companies, production supersedes all other concerns. However, under this organizational strategy, the reactive cycle will continue if resources are not allocated by management to perform proactive work. Most industries today still place incentives, rewards and recognition on the reactive activities.

Current systems encourage the "fire fighting" approach of constantly dealing with failures after the fact. In many cases, a backlog of maintenance work provides a sense of job security. After all, what would happen if there were no failures and nothing to fix?

The elimination of a job is a valid fear of maintenance personnel in an era of reengineering. But what many fail to realize is that proactive activities are not being done because too many resources are devoted to reactive tasks. The field of reliability engineering has many proactive positions available, such as vibration analysts, ultrasonic thickness testing inspectors, parts inspection specialists and failure analysts. But all are currently understaffed because the reactive work takes precedence.

Most people who tout the value of RCFA programs only use them in the case of a "major incident" of the type defined by a regulatory agency such as OSHA, ISO or EPA. In other words, failures are often only analyzed when required by government agencies. These kinds of failures usually involve excessive equipment damage, injuries or fatalities.

But what about all those failures that do not harm people or cause tremendous damage? Referred to as chronic failures because they are repetitive, they are not considered failures, but a part of the job and are accounted for in the budget. Examples of chronic failures include bearing failures, seal failures and defective parts. And even though these types of failures are considered routine, the reality is that the cost of chronic failures typically outweighs the cost of sporadic failures. Any who are skeptical of this fact need only look at the large size of maintenance budgets at many organizations and consider what the money is used for.

Classroom marvels?
Once the decision is made to devote more resources to RCFA, the issue of training must be dealt with. A common misconception about RCFA training is that once someone is trained, he or she becomes an expert who should be able to solve any failure in fewer than eight hours. One does not become an expert in RCFA by sitting in a classroom for a week. Like anything else where proficiency is developed, it involves practice. If RCFA is only performed when major incidents occur, it is likely that there is not much practice.

It also is a common belief among management not educated in RCFA techniques that because their people are learning RCFA, management is out of the picture. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, lack of managerial support for RCFA is the most common reason for failure.

Management must make changes in the work order system to ensure that the proactive recommendations from RCFA are planned and scheduled in the reactive job pool of the Computerized Maintenance Management System. Management must expect and provide analysts the time and resources to form teams and gain cooperation from other departments if their expertise is necessary. RCFA is a team effort among the people who must do the work and the management who must support the activities.

Too much money
Many believe that implementing the recommendations from RCFA will be an expensive venture. But if RCFA costs too much money, then it is being done incorrectly.

The most common cause of chronic failures is deficient organizational systems. Organizational systems are the "rules" that govern how a facility operates. Organizational systems include maintenance procedures, operating procedures, policies, guidelines, training systems and purchasing systems. People make decisions based on these systems. If these systems are flawed, then poor decisions result in operational failures.

Correcting deficient systems is not expensive. Sometimes, throwing money at a problem will make it go away, but most of the time, money is spent on equipment and not on people. Money spent on helping employees make better decisions in the field is money that will provide far greater returns than many equipment investments.

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