Product Reliability: What Every Leader Needs to Know

Product Reliability
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Product Reliability: What Every Leader Needs to Know

For many companies, product reliability is often an elusive achievement – especially small companies. It can sometimes seem like a game of whack-a-mole: as soon as you have solved one problem, another pops it’s ugly head up. Obtaining product reliability success requires well-coordinated efforts amongst many different functions in the organization. This coordination can be a challenge for any leader. Given that product failures and customer complaints carry a lot of emotional baggage, it is not uncommon for the organization to quickly dissolve into a pool of finger pointing hysteria. For any leader to be successful at this role, they must first understand how product reliability is affected by the roles and responsibilities of each part of the organization, and they must create a vision that product failures are an opportunity to improve and not something to sweep under the rug.

Roles and Responsibilities

If we define product reliability as “meeting the expectations of the customer”, then any product failure can be classified into three different categories:

  • The product was used outside its specifications
  • The product was manufactured incorrectly
  • The product was designed incorrectly

Each function within the organization has roles and responsibility that map onto these categories.

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Sales and Marketing

One of marketing’s roles is to properly define and communicate the correct product to sell.  Typically, these product requirements are communicated internally in a Requirements Document. Externally, they are communicated through various means: advertising, instruction manuals, websites, etc.

Whenever the root cause of a product failure is using the product outside its specification, we must ask if we failed to define the correct product, or if we failed to communicate the specification to the customer. Are we selling to the right customer?  Are we doing enough to show how and how not to use the product?  Are we saying anything that implies some unintended use? 

Marketing plays a key, although not always so obvious, role in ensuring that the correct product is defined, and that its intended use is clearly communicated to the customer. 

Product Development/Engineering

Engineering is tasked with taking the Product Requirements and turning them into a set of drawings, that when followed, or complied with, will produce a product that meets these requirements. If the drawings are complied with, the product will meet the reliability requirements. If it is important to do, or not do, it should be documented in the product drawings, sometimes called the Master Book. For example, if the root cause of a product failure was due to tolerance stack up of several components, then the drawings need to be changed to take into consideration this possibility.

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Manufacturing is tasked with building a product within drawing compliance. Its role is to ensure that the product is manufactured in compliance with the Master Book. To take a very simple example, if the drawings call for SN96 solder to be used, and SN63 solder was used instead, then the product was not made within drawing compliance.

Steps to Improved Product Reliability

Improving product reliability is necessarily going to fall to leadership; it is not something that can be delegated. This mission requires the leader to instill a vision of how to think about product reliability, clarifying roles and responsibilities and insisting on a defined process. Absent this trilogy, it is unlikely reliability will improve.  If you are struggling with product reliability improvements, it is likely you are ignoring some part of this equation.

Vision, or how to think about product failures

Poor corporate culture is what happens when there is not deliberate leadership. In the absence of great leadership, a product failure will result in a lot of finger pointing – which does absolutely zero to improve reliability. A great leader will turn failure into an opportunity for everyone to see. 

Great leaders prepare the organization for this opportunity. They do not model or accept finger-pointing behavior. They model and reward behavior that leads, or could lead to improved performance. Great leaders know you fail or succeed as a team, not as individuals, or even groups within an organization. They keep everyone’s energy focused not on whose fault it is, but what steps we must take to fix it. They understand that everyone has a role to play in moving the organization forward. The bad news is that the problem is us, and the good news is the problem is us and therefore we have control over the solution.

When a product fails, it is a great opportunity to improve the product by determining the root cause of the failure and enacting a corrective action to ensure this type of failure is not repeated.

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Clarifying Roles and Responsibilities

If everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible. Organizations that never seem to make a decision, suffer for lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. It is leadership’s job to clarify these roles. What decisions are my responsibilities to make? 

Sure, we want to be collaborative in our decisions, but collaboration is not the same as consensus. Collaboration requires that the decision maker understands everyone’s point of view before making a decision. Consensus requires that everyone agree before a decision is made.  Collaboration is largely in the control of the decision maker. Consensus is outside their control.

Making sure everyone understands their role and responsibility when it comes to product reliability is the first step to action that will create improvements. Was the root cause of the problem a failure of the customer to use the product within the specification? Then, marketing – how do we help you create better product requirements or communicate the specification to the customer? Was the root cause of the problem a failure to do, or not do, something enumerated in the Master Book? Then manufacturing – how do we help you to stay within drawing compliance each and every time? Were the drawings incorrect, or insufficient? Then engineering – how do we help you design better products?


Having the right processes in place is a necessary component to improved reliability. If your company is suffering from product reliability issues, it is very likely that one or more these processes are either broken or non-existent.

The key processes that have the largest impact on product reliability are:

  • Requirements Generation
  • Design Verification Testing
  • Field Failure Reporting

Requirements Generation

Without well-defined requirements every product is doomed to failure.  Without defined requirements, how can we know who to sell to, what to design, how to test, etc. Skipping this step in the product development processes is disastrous, and doing it poorly is only one step above.

Design Verification Testing

After completing the Detail Design phase of the product development processes, build some prototypes and test these against the requirements. It’s important to have a group other than the design group to build and test these prototypes to ensure true drawing compliance testing and to minimize group think.

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Field Failure Reports

Field Failure Reports are generally started by customer service, processed by engineering and closed my management. Customer service documents everything known about the failure, engineering determines the root cause for the failure, and management implements a corrective action to ensure this type of failure does not occur again.

Improving product reliability can be a challenging goal. However, understanding how each part of the organization contributes to this goal and the processes that determine reliability are the keys to leading the organization to the correct vision for making the necessary improvements.

Steve Owens, Founder and CTO of Finish Line Product Development Services, has over 30 years of successful product development experience in many different industries and is a sought after adviser and speaker on the subject. Steve has founded four successful start-ups and holds over twenty five patents.  Steve has worked for companies such as Halliburton and Baker Hughes.  He has experience in Internet of Things, M2M, Oil and Gas, and Industrial Controls.  Steve’s insight into the product development process has generated millions of dollars in revenue for start-ups and small businesses.

I am the Founder and President of Young Leaders Arena. Formerly I was the Chief Editor and program co-ordinator at Walktall. Author of the upcoming Book; Success Recipe: Start up Tool-kit for exceptional business growth. I have written numerous articles on both leadership, business start up, entrepreneurship. I have served as thought leader in many societies and organisations, including the Forum on Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. I obtained my post graduate from the prestigious University of Port Harcourt. I also have a Bachelors from the Delta State University, Abraka. Twitter & Instagram: @Charlessholokwu

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