Is Using MTBF Habit Forming?

With Enough Reinforcement, MTBF Use Becomes a Habit

A habit you should examine and stop.

At first, I wondered if MTBF use was addictive, yet thought that comparison would belittle the very serious issues of those with addictive behaviors. Using MTBF does not generally cause a person harm, while poor decision based on it might harm the organization.

I find those that regularly employ MTBF do so without thinking about it too much. If someone mentions reliability, they think MTBF. Automatically.

Habits help us reduce cognitive load and make our life simpler. For example, do you need to focus on how to put on your shoes every morning? I’m personally happy my habit skills allow me to remember how to drive safely without the intense focus required the first time I got behind the wheel.

Let’s examine how to tell if someone has the Habit of MTBF use and what you can do about it.

Checking for Habits in Everyday Activities

In the paper by Judith A. Ouellette, and Wendy Wood, ‘Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior’ this discuss how a behavior performed repeatedly forms the basis for a habit. When well learned, reinforced, and practiced a response to a situation become nearly automatic.

If a behavior is not well learned, or learned in an unstable or difficult context then we would require conscious decision making to carry out the response. We would have to think about it, and our brain generally trys to minimize thinking.

One test is someone is responding based on a habit is the speed of the response – no time to think about it. Or ask, ‘how did you know to use MTBF in this situation?’ If the response is, we always use MTBF, it may suggest the brain involved didn’t engage. It’s just a habit.

If you ask someone, ‘Why are you using MTBF?’ and get a blank stare, they haven’t thought about it very much.

After a pause, they respond with

  • they don’t know,
  • or they always use MTBF,
  • or it was required or requested,
  • or (my favorite) no one has asked that before,

Then the use of MTBF is likely from habit not from a conscious decision.

Breaking or Stopping a Habit

This is tough, as you know. A habit is what we do, it’s how we operate, it a customary, comfortable response to a situation.

Change is difficult. We do not like change and will resist. Resistance is not futile when battling a habit, habits are strong and difficult to change.

First, the person with the habit has to recognize they have the habit of using MTBF. Call them out on it. Point out that reliability is not MTBF, these two concepts are not interchangeable.

Second, highlight the damage to making good decisions, to profitability, to mission readiness, to uptime, occurs by using MTBF rather than using metrics that include the changing nature of failure rates.

Third, teach, coach, reinforce, and encourage the use of reliability directly instead of using MTBF.

Forming New Habits

One a person recognizes the poor nature of the MTBF use habit, they shift into having to consciously think about reliability again. In school, at a conference, or attending a reliability seminar, they may have been exposed to using Weibull analysis, or probability of success measures, yet didn’t really get it, or know how to apply these concepts at work.

Continue the training, coaching, encouragement to avoid slipping back into using MTBF. Don’t ask for MTBF, ask for reliability. Don’t rush, allow time to get the brain thinking again.

Over time, for example, if every week you ask for the reliability report, not the MTBF report, a new habit will take shape.

Watch for regression back to the old way of using MTBF. Check sample size calculations. Check reliability predictions. Check accelerated test plans. Each may have MTBF lurking within and shift someone back to using MTBF by default.

Help Those Around You Kick the Habit of Using MTBF

When someone request the MTBF for an item or system, I ask, ‘what do you really want to know?’ This typically shifts them from habit, always asking for MTBF, to thinking. Ask why. Ask for clarification. Ask for information on how they plan to use the answer. Ask a question to shift the person talking about MTBF to thinking about what they are doing.

Help those around you. Help them realize the adverse impact the MTBF habit has on them and their organization.

Help them focus on understanding reliability in all its wonderful complexity. Help them make better decisions and improve their products and systems.

Author: Fred Schenkelberg

I am an experienced reliability engineering and management consultant with my firm FMS Reliability. My passion is working with teams to create cost-effective reliability programs that solve problems, create durable and reliable products, increase customer satisfaction, and reduce warranty costs.

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