What people really think during FMEA Workshops (and why this should worry you)

In my role as an innovation project manager I have made a discovery that has completely changed the way I lead FMEAs.

Here is what I discovered: every time I sent out an invitation for an ideation workshop, people happily accepted the invitation and attended.

But every time I invited for a risk management workshop such as an FMEA people declined an “weren’t able” to make room in their calendars.

After a while I discovered a pattern:

People love ideation workshops and hate risk workshops.

Before we discuss why this is and what to do about it, let’s start with your own experience:

Have you ever been invited to an FMEA session? Yes?

  • Did you enjoy it?
  • Did it energize you?
  • Were you focusing most of the time on finding and rating risks?

If you answered only one of the above questions with “yes” you already belong to a minority. Most people try to avoid FMEA session (except for facilitators who earn money with it).

The reason is that FMEA sessions are know to be draging, energy consuming and much time is wasted with endless discussions that do not help to find risks but are mostly about the method and unimportant details (“is it an effect or a cause?”, “ on a scale of 10 is it a 5,5 or a 5.7?” and so on).

But should FMEA sessions be energizing people to find and assess risks?

A non-representative study shows what really goes thorough people’s mind during an FMEA session.

(to be honest: it is not a study but just my experience when I watch people and myself in an FMEA session)

Most people think something like…

  1. Why is it so dark in here?
    I can hardly read what the facilitator is typing on the spread sheet on this projector.
  2. Should I check my email again?
    Maybe It gives me an excuse to leave the session earlier.
  3. Wow, the facilitator is really a slow typer and he just typed 7 mistakes in 4 words.
  4. What is the difference between cause and effect? And what is “detection probability?”
  5. How can I leave this session without any todos?

Roughly 75% of the brain force of the people in the room is occupied with distraction and only 25% of the energy is really invested into risk assessment.

Shouldn’t it be just the other way round?

So how can you help people to focus on the relevant topics and not be distracted?

Let’s have a look on the top 6 distractions during an FMEA session an how to fight them

  1. Avoid distractions from the tool: use pen and paper!

Many companies have sophisticated tools that allow state of the art risk assessment.
Sound great -huh? But most of the tools have two disadvantages: They are neither user friendly nor a workshop-tool. So the team spends a lot of time waiting for the facilitator to enter numbers and sentences into the tool.

So: use as simple tools as possible such as pen, paper, sticky notes or some easy to use online tool where everybody can easily write.

This releases brain power and motivates people to engage.

Typing all the facts into the tool can be done by one person after the workshop!

2. Avoid watching the facilitator typing

This a similar point: avoid complicated tools that lead to the situation where

7 people in the room are yawning while 1 person is typing or writing under high pressure

(don’t want to be the person that has to type in front of all — huh?).

Hand out pen and paper to everybody and have people write synchronously. All of a sudden you have 8 brains working in parallel instead of 7 brains sleeping and 1 brain working in overload.

3. Don’t get lost in details

Most facilitators define beforehand what subsystems should be analyzed in what sequence and proceed by function or from A to Z or from left to right.

This often leads to situations where a module with low risks is discussed extensively but modules with high risks are covered only superficially because the team runs out of time and energy.

So: start with an overview-rating and decided as a team where the main risks are and keep re-adjusting your priority during the workshop.

Always go from rough to detail. Always go from high risk zones to low risk zones.

4. Avoid a tiring environment

We are all aware that creativity needs light, air, engagement, space, food etc. And we are used to create an inspiring environment for ideation workshops.

We should create the same environment for risk assessment workshops, because creativity is a major success factor for risk assessment.

So: don’t close the blinds, don’t start a spread-sheet on a lousy projector with a lousy resolution, don’t have people sitting on chairs around tables (this is how risk sessions usually are conducted). But bring in light, food, energy and inspirational material!

5. Avoid endless discussions on rating

“Is it a 5.5 or is it a 6 ?” “Let’s take the compromise: 5.75”

Do you know these discussions? They are very time and energy consuming but are rarely important.

So: use rough scales (low — medium — high or 1,3,5,7) and/or use sticky dots to mark high risk zones. In the rare case where you need more precision, postpone it to a separate discussion.

6. Avoid that fear of todos

In most cases risk assessments are done too late. The effect is, that nobody in the room really wants to find new risks because the concept is frozen anyway and the time to market launch is too short for any changes.

So: do the risk assessment as early as possible. The effect will be that the participants are happy to engage because they are eager to learn and still have the freedom to even do major changes in the system.

The secret sauce to make people love your risk management sessions is right here:

If you want motivated and effective team mates, make sure you have an inspirational setting:

  • do risk assessment early in the process
    when people are still open for changes and the learning curve is high
  • start with intuition not with structure
    start with open questions such as “what is risky?” “what could go wrong?” “what makes you lie awake at night?” and then follow up with structured questions module by module
  • Always focus on high risk areas
    so if time and energy is over, you are sure you invested your time well. Keep adjusting the prioritization during the meeting
  • Make people work simultaneously
    everybody should always have the opportunity to write and contribute. Avoid situations with 1 person writing and 7 persons sleeping
  • Detailed quantitative assessment only where needed
    do not assess every risk in full detail (severity, probability, detection) because this is very time consuming and rarely necessary. If needed do it in a separate event in a smaller group.

read on: “How I managed to have just as much fun with Risk Management as with Ideation



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Thomas Siegrist

Thomas Siegrist

I share my thoughts on innovation principles and methods — because early stage innovation is my passion and my job.