Optimize your Failure Mode Brainstorm


We’ve all been there. It’s time to brainstorm a list of potential failure modes and it’s like pulling teeth to get any ideas. If you haven’t been through this, consider yourself lucky. Be that as it may, this process is a key step in the Failure Mode Effect Analysis method.

What is Failure Mode Effect Analysis (FMEA)?

Simply put, FMEA is a way of identifying, evaluating, preparing for, and preventing potential failures in a process. The standard format is a table that organizes the data so that the team can easily visualize potential failures.

When it comes time to brainstorm the list of potential failure modes, there are ways to improve the quality of ideas generated. We’ll organize these by potential obstacles to the brainstorm itself.

Potential Brainstorm Obstacles

  1. No one or the same people speak up every time: You’ve called everyone together for a productive brainstorm, the problem on the floor is just getting worse, and the same one or two people offer ideas or no one wants to be the first to offer an idea.


  • Break up the group into sub-groups and have them report back to the whole group after a certain amount of time.
  • Give multiple ways to offer ideas: Give everyone a marker and stickies to write their ideas, hang large pieces of paper on the wall or move the meeting to a room with whiteboards on the walls. Is there a technological method? If your organization has some sort of web forum that would suit the confidentiality needs of the project, try that. The goal is to find the method that will most engage your team. Get creative. What are all the ways people could share their thoughts?
  • Prepare their minds: Before the meeting, or the next meeting, send a summary of the key points and ask everyone to spend some time brainstorming on their own. Some people work best when they have time to think uninterrupted. Others just like to prepare and still others may ignore your request. Ideally, the last bunch are the types who think best on the spot.
  1. The ideas are off the mark: People are offering ideas, but they all seem to be missing a key point of the problem.


  • Redirect: Pose a question that draws the brainstorm closer to the key points. Be careful not to come off frustrated or angry. It’s just a simple question, so ask it that way. One of the quickest ways to slow down a brainstorm is to give the impression that some ideas are good and some are bad.
  • Prime their minds, as described above.
  1. Slow start: A slow start to a brainstorm does not mean it’s not going to get better. In fact, it could mean that your team is taking the process very seriously and is thinking first. Whatever it means for your particular team, try one of these.


  • Share the spotlight: Ask someone else to explain a key part of the problem. This can be an easy way to get more people talking. You may also give the facilitator role to someone else on the team and take a role of brainstormer instead. That could also be a development opportunity for an emerging leader on the team or a way to highlight someone’s facilitation skills, which are important for several other lean tools and methods.
  • Allow the silence: Sometimes a little bit of silence is all someone needs to start talking. It’s human nature to fill the silence. Silence also gives a clear chance for people who may otherwise not talk so much.
  1. Negative attitudes: Possibly the hardest thing to change in the moment is negative momentum. If you try a few different tactics and things aren’t changing, it could be best to end the current brainstorm and reschedule, if time allows. Before that, here are some ideas that might help.


  • Acknowledge the frustration and move on: Let the team know that you understand what they’re saying, take some notes, and suggest that the specifics be handled outside of the brainstorm.
  • Redirect toward the task at hand: Encourage people to focus on the brainstorm and the process you’re all there to evaluate. This is a simple and obvious idea, but when it’s done in a non-threatening way it can be enough to get the brainstorm back on track. Redirection could also mean converting a complaint into something that’s useful for the brainstorm.
  • Encourage those who are focused: In the situation when some team members are focused on the intended purpose of the brainstorm and others are not, encourage those who are suggesting helpful ideas about the failure modes.

One thing that will always help your brainstorming activities, whether they’re about failure modes or something else, is fostering the kind of culture that encourages ideas and innovation. Culture change isn’t easy and it’s too long to address in this article, but a way to start is to understand the current culture and what’s causing it. Whether it’s a culture that works well or not, it’s always helpful to learn about it.

Like anything else, Failure Mode Effect Analysis works better with better input. The more you do to improve that, the better your results will be all the way around.

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