Reliability Engineers: Effectiveness Depends on Leadership

Beyond acquiring the knowledge, one of the most difficult aspects of a Reliability Engineer's job is building and cultivating a reliability-centered culture. This article explores opportunities for REs to develop leadership abilities by immersing themselves into the effort to transform an organization’s culture.

Today’s Reliability Engineer (RE) must possess a thorough understanding of the Reliability Engineering Body of Knowledge1. Beyond acquiring the knowledge, one of the most difficult aspects of the RE’s job is building and cultivating a reliability-centered culture. This article explores opportunities for REs to develop leadership abilities by immersing themselves into the effort to transform an organization’s culture.

The RE’s primary role is to identify and manage risks that could adversely affect plant or business operations. Within this primary role, the RE directs and provides leadership for an asset management plan that will improve asset reliability and total cost of ownership, as well as the reliability of work processes, procedures and practices that will ensure universal adherence to best practices. The RE must also build and nurture a culture needed to sustain reliability improvements that ultimately impact the bottom line. This requires a high level of credibility and the social skills to influence a diverse workforce, from the shop floor all the way to upper management. Developing leadership in the RE role is a journey best guided by mentors using a career development plan as the roadmap.  

Building a Reliability-Centered Culture
Reliability must be continually monitored and enhanced to sustain improvements and make it a part of an organization’s culture. Building a reliability-centered culture also requires a measurement system to assure growth. Examining the way an organization includes reliability in discussions and decisions creates a basic picture of the current reliability culture. A best practice is to use a comprehensive assessment process to quantify reliability culture with a high degree of granularity. After the baseline reliability culture is measured, you need to “maintain the momentum” and communicate cultural growth or stagnation at every opportunity. Auditing cultural dynamics and serving as a focal point for sustainability requires the ability to negotiate roadblocks, patience and tenacity, skills and traits that are developed over time.

REs must also build relationships with people who can assist in their reliability improvement and sustainability efforts, both technical and cultural. Frequently engaging all levels of Engineering, Maintenance and Operations departments provides an opportunity to build relationships with potential champions of reliability to help change the culture.  

Improving Reliability in Design
REs can develop leadership skills by incorporating design for reliability (DfR) principles and practices into the project engineering process. They lead the effort to minimize the impact of poor design on asset reliability by providing technical leadership to ensure the reliability and maintainability of new and modified installations. Designing reliable equipment requires risk assessment, clear knowledge of the operations, involvement from operations and maintenance subject matter experts, and a focus on minimizing life-cycle costs. Assuring asset reliability requires you to lead a concerted effort between engineering, maintenance and operations. Most projects are focused on budget and deadlines rather than long-term cost of ownership (LTCO). This give you the opportunity to change the culture by illustrating to the project team the impact that DfR has on LTCO.

Improving Reliability in Maintenance
REs have multiple opportunities to lead reliability improvements in maintenance. The first initiative is to identify criticality of assets. Since criticality analysis doesn’t directly impact the bottom line, REs need to educate leadership on its importance to compete for the resources required to complete the analysis. It’s important to build relationships with maintenance managers and crafts when leading teams to develop equipment maintenance plans to ensure that equipment reliability is realized and LTCO is minimized. You also has an opportunity to influence the engineering function by providing necessary information for design improvements where applicable.

When equipment failure results in production interruption, maintenance is typically pressured to execute repairs as quickly as possible to minimize prime-to-prime losses. This gives you an opportunity to educate maintenance managers and process owners about the value of eliminating repair maintenance re-work. Taking extra time to uncover evidence, finding root causes and repairing equipment utilizing world-class precision maintenance techniques will require a cultural shift. REs must stand firmly behind the data proving that maintenance costs and production losses are minimized when equipment is repaired correctly and root causes are solved. REs also lead the implementation of a control strategy by institutionalizing repair procedures to restore equipment its original level of reliability.

Improving Reliability in Operations
A great way to build negotiation skills and gain an understanding of operations is to frequently engage process owners or production leaders. Involve them in strategy and planning activities to ensure that they sponsor the reliability improvement initiatives and take accountability for sustainability processes. Building a strong relationship with the process owner will allow you the opportunity to teach them the building blocks of a reliability-centered culture. It’s imperative to gain their support before approaching operators and support roles. Operators are the first layer of protection against the effects of adverse conditions. Training operators to identify symptoms of equipment in distress, adverse conditions and the actions to mitigate their effects, are essential to improving and sustaining asset reliability.

Leading by Teaching
In a reliability-centered culture, the whole workforce has to be focused on asset reliability. REs can develop technical expertise and lead cultural transformation through teaching. Educating the workforce on reliability principles and behaviors is essential to creating a reliability-centered culture. This education should be provided to all levels of the organization, from operators and maintenance crafts to upper management. Work through your training coordinator to schedule training courses on reliability principles. You may encounter trouble scheduling people working on shift. One way to educate those on the shop floor is through gemba walks. Gemba walk is the practice of regularly going to see the actual process, understand the work being performed, ask questions, and learning. This also provides the perfect platform to lead by teaching. At every opportunity you should engage people in the organization and ask them about their role in reliability and solicit ways to improve.

Choosing a Mentor
Choosing a mentor can be one of the most critical decisions of your career. The best mentors are excited about learning, are continuing their own development, and want to actively participate in helping you grow. You may want to select one mentor for technical guidance and another for leadership development. If your organization lacks RE subject matter expertise, look outside the company by attending reliability-related events. Your safety department is also a potential source for a mentor and is likely to have managed cultural change. From a leadership perspective, look for someone who also sets high standards for their work and can set an example for you. If no potential mentors readily come to mind, ask your peers or supervisor if they know of anyone they think would make a good mentor for you. Your organization may have a mentoring program that can match you with a mentor based on your goals and the mentor's knowledge and skills.

Creating a Career Development Plan
A career development plan (CDP) is an orderly and purposeful method for reviewing where you are in your career, deciding where you want to be and using smart goals to get there.2 There are many plans at your disposal in the literature. Make sure your plan includes technical and leadership paths. The CDP is a living document and requires periodic updates and possibly revisions. Don’t let your CDP collect dust!

1.    Reliability Engineering Body of Knowledge; ASQ
2.    Create a Career Development Plan;
Michael Blanchard is a Reliability Engineering Subject Matter Expert with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). He has more than 25 years experience as a reliability leader in a variety of industries. Mike is a licensed Professional Engineer, a Certified Reliability Engineer, and a Certified Lean-Six Sigma Master Black Belt. You can reach Mike at