Seeing the Potential for Failure
On Saturday, I was flying from ABQ to ATL on Delta Airlines. I was looking forward to catching up on some work after our breakfast service. I noticed that when they brought me a coffee, that Delta had changed their coffee mugs. It was an updated more modern look (even the plane’s interior was pretty old). Then they brought me the equally “stylish” tray with a breakfast. Immediately, I thought “a tray without a lip on all sides seems like a bad idea on an airline.” It took me about 1/2 second to recognize the potential for failure.
About 20 minutes later when they are clearing breakfast, the flight attendant reached over to take my neighbor’s tray and as she lifted it over me, a knife slid off the front of the tray and landed pointy side down into my lap. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m done having kids. Based on the height it was being carried, just a little different angle and it could have landed in my face.
The flight attendant was apologetic. But it wasn’t really her fault. It was bound to happen. And it will happen again. Probably today, several times. Flight attendants will probably complain, and they will be told “just be more careful”, a popular solution to failed management.
What makes this preventable? FMEA. No, not FEMA. FMEA stands for Failure Mode and Effect Analysis. Catchy, right? There are lots of details to get into, but forget all the templates and procedures. In the end, it comes down to looking at a situation, process, or product and asking these fundamental questions:
What are the potential failures?
What’s the probability that those failures happen?
What’s the severity if that failure occurs?
What can we do about it?
If you’re designing a new automobile, designed to be used by anyone over 16 years old at high rates of speed, then asking those questions should be (and is) a very systematic and controlled process. But even in smaller situations, like rolling out new dish ware on a plane, it can be a simple process of asking those questions.
I ask those questions out of habit. That’s why I spotted the potential high probability / medium severity situation the second they put the tray down. The question is, was anyone at Delta asking those questions?
The bigger question is: are you asking those questions?