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Understanding the PFMEA and Its Role in Supply Chain Management

The Process Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (PFMEA) is an often-misunderstood process. Let’s dive right into what the PFMEA is and how we can use it to strengthen supply chain management processes.

 

What is the PFMEA?

The PFMEA originated from the Failure Mode Effect and Criticality Analysis (FMECA) used by the US military to analyze new defense systems at the beginning of the Cold War. The process went through several evolutions to arrive at its current state, which has remained approximately the same for the past quarter-century. It is an analytical tool used to review the steps in a manufacturing process to identify quality risks.

To use it effectively, it’s important to understand what it is (and what it isn’t). This quality control process is designed to produce two results: first, to identify potential failures in your product, and second, to determine where you should concentrate and prioritize correction efforts. The PFMEA does not tell you whether a process is good or bad, efficient or inefficient, simple or complex.

The PFMEA is a tool, and like any tool, how effective it is depends on how it’s used. PFMEA training has done a good job of explaining the mechanics behind documenting an analysis. Where that training sometimes fails is explaining the why behind the PFMEA.

 

 

Here’s an example of a typical PFMEA structure. Each of these columns will appear in the PFMEA, often with standardized verbiage and requisite content, depending on the organization. Sometimes quality control inspectors focus on individual trees and ignore the forest, nailing engineers for minor non-compliance issues on form completion rather than asking if the overall process was executed properly — meaning it’s critical to analyze the process as a whole rather than zeroing in on one detail.

Over the past 75 years, this process has demonstrated its value time and again. However, it is essential to use the PFMEA as an incisive investigative tool rather than a checkbox process. For example, imagine a medical lab tech who is supposed to check tissue samples for cancer; in an effort to inspect as many samples as possible (which is how his performance is analyzed), he glances at each one through his microscope only briefly, then moves on to the next. He doesn’t invest the time to check out each corner of the sample and work through it in-depth. This can happen with the PFMEA — all of the steps identified in the PFMEA can be completed, but if the why behind them is ignored, the analysis results can be less than optimal.

 

How Can the PFMEA Strengthen Supply Chain Management?

Companies must take two steps to maximize the PFMEA’s effectiveness.

First, anyone who touches the PFMEA must be trained to understand the why behind it. This includes both the engineers and architects designing the products to be analyzed and the quality control inspectors who will evaluate the PFMEA itself. Anytime a shortcoming is identified, it should be brought back to the overall process by asking a simple question: “Does this writeup move us closer to a quality process or further away from it?”

Second, the PFMEA should be used at every step of the process, particularly in the early planning stages when you haven’t yet incurred equipment costs. When used effectively, often and early, the PFMEA can strengthen each stage of supply chain management. It can proactively identify risks, allowing redesigns to be proactive rather than reactive, which directly improves your bottom line.

The PFMEA is conceptually simple but has a tremendous amount of depth. When an organization struggles to execute the PFMEA well, the problems are ironically similar: simple to identify, but there might be a lot of entrenched resistance to change. If you can get everyone involved with the PFMEA to continually return the process to its why, you’ll likely see revolutionary improvements in your supply chain management processes.