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  • Ian Crocombe

Thinking about the bad stuff is good

Updated: Aug 22

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a crystal ball to see into the future and avoid all the bad things that might happen?

Well this article doesn’t quite do that but what about if we had a neat way of at least thinking about the potential bad things that might happen, planning for how we’d spot them happening as early as possible, understanding their likely impact and how we could do our best to minimise that impact.

For a long time in engineering there has been an approach called ‘failure mode effect analysis’ (FMEA) and in the context of industries like aerospace, medicine, automotive (and I’m sure there are loads of other examples) you can easily see why understanding the things that could go wrong might be critical.

Its not so different for charities or SMEs whether that’s front facing interactions, back office processing or the increasing incidence of digital technologies as activity enablers. We will always want to understand what might go wrong and why so we can put mitigating activities in place.


I just call it error proofing and its something I’ve used regularly across process management, programme governance and service improvement activity as a means to deliver effective design, provide appropriate controls, manage risks and achieve operational efficiency.

I’ve also found it a great team exercise too both in the creation of the error proofing summary itself but also in the sense of ownership this creates for the project or other activity being reviewed.

There are lots of text books and web material on this subject, but at its core its very simple.

Step 1: Identify what could go wrong and what the likely impact might be

Step 2: Think through what the causes of the failure might be (there are tools like

fishbone diagrams, 5 Why charts and so forth to help with this)

Step 3: Assess (and score) the severity and probability of the error / failure happening and how easy it would be to detect

Step 4: Work through for each identified error / failure what activities, controls and measures you could put in place to prevent or mitigate it.


By using or adapting a standard FMEA template and scoring definitions (you can find these for free on the internet or I can help) and multiplying the ratings for severity, probability and detection you easily prioritise the areas you need to concentrate on first.


From a prioritised list you can also create and monitor an action plan to ensure you follow through error prevention and remember of course this is a repeating and repeatable exercise to continually improve as new threats, ideas and insights emerge all the time.


Don't forget, this approach can easily be used to help navigate out of the pandemic and protect / sustain your sustainability too.






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