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Fred Schenkelberg


The Fear of Reliability

What steps are you taking to cure the local condition?

Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2018 - 12:01

Mean time between failures (MTBF) is a symptom of a bigger problem. It’s possibly a lack of interest in reliability (which I doubt is the case). Or it’s a bit of fear of reliability.

Many shy away from the statistics involved. Some simply don’t want to know the currently unknown. It could be the fear of potential bad news that the design isn’t reliable enough. Some don’t care to know about problems that will requiring solving.

Whatever the source of the uneasiness, you may know one or more co-workers who would rather not deal with reliability in any direct manner.

Is ‘reliaphobia’ a thing?

Maybe not directly, yet the symptoms seem to be there. A mindset of avoidance concerning the topic, the lack of focus to understand or improve reliability, the dismissal of estimates or test results, the rush to “put right” any life limiting problems.

The general desire to move on or away from detailed discussions concerning reliability is a clue. This may be difficult for reliability professionals to grasp because we tend to enjoy understanding failure mechanisms. We tend to work to estimate or analyze reliability performance. It is what we do.

Other than the math, does mechanical engineering engender such avoidance? For power electronics a bit of fear is good since touching a live circuit could be fatal. Discussing a plan to improve reliability performance may require a bit of thinking, yet certainly isn’t dangerous.

Maybe there is a fear of reliability at work around us.

A personal fear

Maybe those we work with avoid saying reliability is important because doing so might lead to more work or reflect poorly on their designs.

If you have been part of a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) discussion, you may have noticed the uneasiness of the person responsible for the design. The group of people around the table one by one describe potential weaknesses or flaws with the design. We’re basically saying the design may be inadequate, which in a way is saying the designer is likewise inadequate.

Few enjoy such sentiment from their peers.

Others may see the highlighting or understanding of a design’s reliability performance as just another way to add work to an already busy timeline. I once worked with a project manager that didn’t want to perform any testing to failure. One, failures is bad, and we don’t want to have failures. Two, any weaknesses or flaws that would limit the life of the product would require additional time to understand and solve. Time that just was not available.

The less he knew, the better the development plan appeared—fictitious though it was.

An organizational fear

We set up systems and processes within organizations to facilitate decision making. We attempt to provide just the right information at the right time to permit moving forward with a project.

At times we learn about field failures that may or may not lead to major warranty expenses. The ability to recognize, understand, and report the problem all too often relies on individual heroism. The organizational system tends to provide a local focus and avoids spotting and dealing with reliability issues.

All too often the customer service team, dealing with product failures on a daily basis, doesn’t delve into root cause analysis or time-to-failure tracking. Instead, the team focuses on helping customers get working again—or ships them a new product.

All too often the operations team focuses on yield improvement without paying attention to the latent defects that are shipping with each product.

Likewise, the development team focuses on delivering new designs on time and within budget, with little more than a cursory review of the few field issues it might have heard about at some point.

It’s rare that an organization establishes the appropriate systems to encourage the identification, understanding, and systemic resolution of failures. Failures are bad, and we don’t like to talk about bad things.


I don’t think “reliaphobia” is a condition for which our medical community can offer a remedy. It’s up to us to identify and cure the condition.

Oh, on MTBF: I suspect it’s that easy-to-use, no-need-to-understand, metric that does a fine job hiding the problems and limiting the understanding, but supports the fear of reliability. If your organization uses MTBF, it may be a coping mechanism and it is thus “doing” reliability.

Setting up systems, reporting, education, and encouragement all seem to reduce the fear of reliability. A steady dose of solving problems and getting great results is another sure path to curing the condition.

Is the fear of reliability rampant in your organization? What steps are you taking to cure the local condition?


About The Author

Fred Schenkelberg’s picture

Fred Schenkelberg

Fred Schenkelberg is an experienced reliability engineering and management consultant with his firm FMS Reliability. His passion is working with teams to create cost-effective reliability programs that solve problems, create durable and reliable products, increase customer satisfaction, and reduce warranty costs. Schenkelberg is developing the site Accendo Reliability, which provides you access to materials that focus on improving your ability to be an effective and influential reliability professional.