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From Good RE to Great RE: A 3-Part Facilitation Strategy for Your Events

By Tara D. Holwegner, Life Cycle Institute

A reliability engineer (RE) must have technical competencies like risk analysis, reliability modeling and root cause analysis, but that's not enough. In order to contribute to and influence the business, an RE needs to be capable of communicating and facilitating meetings effectively.

A reliability engineer must be both a subject matter expert and a collaborative process manager. Many gifted reliability engineers struggle to bridge the gap between the technical duties of a content expert and the process focus of a facilitator, not realizing that they need facilitator skills to connect with their audience, keep people focused on objectives, remain inclusive, summarize inputs and provoke follow-up action (including investments for reliability projects).

When does an RE have to put on the facilitator hat? Some examples of RE-led efforts:

  • Facilitating impactful root cause analysis events
  • Delivering compelling and persuasive communication to leadership
  • Leading productive equipment design sessions
  • Presenting information in a meaningful way to a non-technical audience
  • Managing cross-functional improvement projects

To complicate matters, an RE typically has limited time to reach meeting goals. With all these constraints and non-technical demands, what’s a data-minded professional to do?

The good news is a facilitation strategy can prevent common problems and steer meetings into productive, results-producing events.

A facilitation strategy is comprised of three parts: an opening, a process and a closing. Each part has key elements that make it an inclusive and collaborative process to solve problems and make group decisions. It may sound counterintuitive, but having a good plan is the best way to ensure flexibility when it suits the needs of the meeting.

To stay on task, a facilitation agenda is a tool to capture your strategy in detail and can be referenced during the meeting.

Part 1: Opening Your Meeting

An opener is how you begin your meeting and has three aims: connect participants to each other, connect participants to the meeting purpose and achieve buy-in from the group to drive towards meeting goals. When done well, the opener sets a cooperative tone, encourages participation and prevents resistance from sidetracking your meeting. Openers can range from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, depending on the meeting duration and type of interaction needed between participants (i.e. short meetings have short openers; meetings with sub-group tasks might open with a subgroup-forming opener).

When selecting an opener, ask the following questions to gauge effectiveness. These criteria are derived from Bob Pike’s eight characteristics to open a creative session:

  1. Does it break preoccupation? Your participants have a busy inbox demanding their attention. Your opener should prompt the participant to pay attention and think about the meeting topic.
  2. Is it connected to the meeting content? Time is precious. Your opener should be relevant to the meeting topic or find one that is.
  3. Does it facilitate networking? The opener should connect the learners to each other and the meeting purpose.
  4. Does it maintain self-esteem? To be productive and encourage individual contributions, each person should feel their opinion is valued and that they will not be ridiculed or retaliated against.

Some examples of how to open a meeting:

  • Sentence completion opener: have a list of sentences related to the topic with a key word missing. Participants fill in the blanks. For example, “Getting to the root cause of problems is _____ in our organization.” Or “The relationship between maintenance and operations is _____.”
  • Ground rules opener: draw two columns with a smiling face and a frowning face. Ask participants to describe characteristics of good meetings and bad meetings. Get agreement from participants that the group will focus on practicing behaviors in support of a good meeting.
  • Twitter opener: In five words or less, describe how you feel about ____ (meeting topic).

Part 2: Meeting Process

The meeting process is the method by which you meet goals. Are you trying to brainstorm root causes to problems, consider countermeasures, come to consensus, make a decision or collect and process feedback? Selecting a meeting process is the core of your facilitation strategy and requires pre-meeting thought. After considering your meeting goal, back into the type of participation you want from participants. Do you want to capture large amounts of feedback to categorize or prioritize? Do you need to analyze data sets and draw conclusions? Different facilitation strategies can be employed depending on your goal and the participation you solicit.

Some examples of meeting process structures:

Organized problem-solving tools:

  • Fishbone organizes problem contributors into man, method, machine, material categories
  • 5-Why - state the problem and repeatedly ask “why?” to surface contributing factors and causes
  • Sequence of events - step through the event like a detective, investigating the sequence of actions that led up to the problem

Organized brainstorming tools:

  • Affinity diagrams - organizes contributions into categories that organically surface
  • Roving flip charts - set up flip charts with different topics, problems, complaints, etc. Give participants post-it notes to document their responses and post feedback anonymously
  • Forcefield analysis – draw two columns and solicit opposing viewpoints. For example: good/bad elements of a product review, for/against certain investment options or the pros/cons of a proposed change.Multi-voting is a generally accepted way to assign priority within a group of items. You can ask people to score each item, pick the top three or provide a weighted scale to quantifiably narrow down your choices.

Part 3: Closing Your Meeting

Meeting closure is how you end the meeting after capturing decisions, action items, responsibilities and follow-up dates. A meeting effectiveness check helps you assess the meeting’s efficacy and improve future meetings. The effectiveness check can also be used during the meeting as a “check-in” to ensure things are going as planned, or to “spot treat” a meeting complication. Administering surveys as people walk out of the meeting or on a break typically get more participation than online surveys.

Rate your meeting in three to five areas of concern, such as:

  • Outcomes - did we achieve what we needed to?
  • Organization - how effective was the meeting structure?
  • Time management - how well did we use our time?
  • Participation - did we make sure everyone was involved?
  • Action plans - are our action plans clear and doable?

A visual way to capture meeting effectiveness feedback is to post the questions on a flip chart with a rating scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) and have meeting participants put an “x” or a checkmark to anonymously rate their responses.

Facilitation Agenda: Document Your Facilitation Strategy

Once you have defined an opening, process and closing for your meeting, capture the details in a facilitation agenda. A facilitation agenda is a detailed “step-by-step” of how you plan to execute your opener, process and closing to guide the group towards achieving their goal. The facilitation agenda is divided into sections for your notes, the duration of that part of the meeting and any materials or items you need to use during that part of the meeting. The facilitation agenda can be printed or stored on a tablet to reference during the meeting. An example of a facilitation agenda to collect design requirements is below:

Facilitation Agenda

Materials list

  • 2 flip charts
  • Markers
  • Post-it notes
  • Project schedule
  • Weekly report

Day 1

Time

Section

Description

Materials

8:30-8:45

Goals

Lead a 5-Why flip chart activity:

Why are we here?

Participants submit their responses

Highlight goals for session:

  • Design requirements list
  • Current priorities to propose to leadership

Flip chart

8:45-9:00

Ground rules opener

1. Think about a productive meeting – what makes it productive?

2. What can the group do to ensure that these characteristics are present?

3. Document responses on flip chart

Flip chart

9:00-9:30

Current state

Business case for re-design

Redesign business case presentation

9:30-9:45

Break

   

9:45-11:45

Requirements collection

Roving flip chart – 5 flip charts with design for reliability categories to collect requirement requests

5 flip charts: Standardize, Interchangeable, Modular, Accessible, Controls

11:45-12:15

Break

   

12:15-12:45

Multi-vote on important requirements

Go through each of 5 flip charts and ask participants to choose their top 3 design requests in each category

Tally results and publish to team

Flip charts with requests

Sticker dots (15 per person = 75 dots)

12:45-1:15

Next steps and action items

Assign responsibility to outline report for project sponsor to include prioritized requests, scope, timeline and resource requirements.

Schedule next team meeting

Action item list with responsibilities

1:15-1:20

Meeting survey

Forcefield analysis for meeting

+: Strengths of today’s meeting

_: Weaknesses of today’s meeting

Rx: How can we correct the weaknesses?

Flip chart with 3 columns (+, -, Rx)

The facilitation agenda is a roadmap for an organized, productive meeting that incorporates three key meeting parts: an opener that connects participants to each other, connects them to the meeting purpose and encourages participation; a process vehicle to organize meeting input and drive towards meeting goals; and a closing to gauge the effectiveness of your meeting.

An RE should use a facilitation strategy and agenda to practice valuable facilitation skills during root cause analysis events, cross-functional projects and reliability efforts that include technical and non-technical stakeholders. These tools can help bridge the gap between the technical duties of a content expert and the process focus of a facilitator, yielding a well-rounded reliability engineer poised to gain support for their reliability efforts.

Tara Denton Holwegner is a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) and Project Management Professional (PMP). As a Learning Consultant with the Life Cycle Institute, Tara builds learning and performance improvement programs that meet business objectives and coaches facilitation techniques that ensure behavior change. You can reach Tara at tholwegner@LCE.com.

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