Teleworker Toolkit: Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA)

Implementing telework, or any organizational change, can be a daunting experience.  Many organizational leaders or managers will be filled with questions, such as what happens if employees become inaccessible, what if there are technical issues, what about security problems, etc.  One tool leaders can use to anticipate and mitigate potential problems is called a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis or FMEA.     

 To be fair, an FMEA is more than just a tool.  It is a systematic method to recognize, evaluate, and prioritize potential pain points or “failure modes” and their effects.  It is also used to identify actions that could eliminate or reduce the chance of potential failure occurring.  By using the FMEA, leaders can proactively address areas of concern, document actions or procedures and increase the chance of a successful telework implementation.

 Some History…

The FMEA was first developed by the US military during World War II to determine the effect of system and equipment failures.  A few decades later it was adopted by NASA and used during the Apollo space program.  By the 1970s, FMEA was introduced into the automotive industry by Ford Motor Company after its infamous problems with the Ford Pinto.  Today, FMEA can be found in all industries from manufacturing to banking to services to healthcare.   It is used on a variety of things from helping to design better products to improving continuity of operations planning (COOP).


Before we get into the FMEA, a few definitions:

Failure Mode: the way in which something could fail.  In a traditional manufacturing environment, a failure mode might describe how a product could break.  In telework terms, a failure mode might be something like, “Teleworker has no access to internet.”

Effects: The outcome of the failure mode.  For the example above, an outcome of a teleworker with no connectivity is that he or she can’t access information, attend meetings, or perform specific parts of their job.

Severity:  A ranking on a scale of 1 – 10 of the impact of the failure effect if it were to occur (10 = disastrous consequences, 1 = effects unlikely to be noticed).

Potential Causes:  Potential reasons the failure mode would occur, i.e. “Problems with local service provider.”

Probability:  A ranking on a scale of 1 – 10 of the probability of the failure cause to occur (10 = certainty, 1 = highly unlikely/1 in a million).

Current Controls:  Mechanisms currently in place that will detect or prevent the failure mode from occurring.

Detectability:  A ranking on a scale of 1 – 10 of the organization’s ability to detect the failure mode  before it occurs or prevent it from happening (10= no ability to detect before it becomes a problem, 1 = likely to prevent or detect before it becomes a problem)

Risk Priority Number (RPN):  The RPN identifies the greatest areas of concern. It is found by multiplying the severity, probability, and detectability scores. 

 FMEA Process

  1.  Brainstorm potential failure modes.  If you have already developed a plan to implement your telework initiative, go step by step through the plan and ask how that step could fail or go wrong. If you don’t have a plan yet then just use the collective mind of the team to identify potential problem areas.
  2. Identify the causes.  For each problem area, pain point, or failure mode you identified, think about what could cause it.  Note that a failure mode may have more than one potential cause.
  3. Identify the current controls.  What controls do you have in place now that will detect or prevent the problem.
  4. Calculate the RPN.  Go back and rank the severity, probability, and detectability for each item.
  5. Identify actions.  You can use the RPN to prioritize the various problem areas and determine which ones the team needs to focus on first.  Brainstorm actions on how to mitigate the identified problems.  Ensure you assign ownership for any actions.


  • Keep in mind that the FMEA is a living document, not a one-time activity.  Periodically review and update it (especially if you are running a pilot; a good time to update the FMEA is right after the pilot before a full implementation happens).
  • There are no absolutes on the ranking numbers or the RPN.  Don’t get bogged to assigned a value.  It is intended to help prioritize all the pain points in case if you have limited resources and can’t address all of them at once.
  • It requires input from a team and is not intended to be a solitary activity.
  • Ensure you are using the FMEA to drive some sort of action, otherwise it is just a team discussion without tangible value.

Like the other tools mentioned previously (i.e. RACI, stakeholder analysis), the FMEA is fairly subjective.  Remember the usefulness of the tool is not in the calculation of any specific risk number.  Instead, the value is from forcing the team to think about various potential problems and what can be done about it before the implementation even starts.

Good luck!



3 Responses to Teleworker Toolkit: Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA)

  1. Hey Thevirtualleader,
    This might be off topic, however, The Failure Modes and Effects Analysis Plan (FMEA) is a tool used by the aerospace industry in the 1960’s. Automotive companies then adapted this plan sometime later, and now all industries employing Six Sigma programs use FMEA when working to correct defects.
    Kindest Regards

  2. Thanks for your comment. I’ve been involved with Six Sigma for about 12 years now and have used FMEA many times… it’s a great tool! I’ve found that it can be applied to just about any environment, even teleworking!

  3. fhfrances says:

    Doing a failure analysis will definitely save you the hassle of thinking what to do if ever you encounter problems with a certain product.

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