Why Risk Assessments are Essential to Solution Design

The primary benefit we expect from any solution is that it solves our problem. Solutions can also come with secondary benefits, which are not directly related to closing the performance gap we have identified, but which still offer value to our organisation. Any solution we implement can however also come with risks, and if we are not cognisant of these the consequences can be severe.

Problem solving does not end when a solution is implemented. Every implemented solution must be evaluated to assess its performance. This is, in essence, the “Check” part of the PDCA cycle. This evaluation includes a review of not only the benefits, but also any unintended consequences. But just because these consequences are unintended does not mean that we should only think about them after solution implementation. Instead, we want to prevent unintended consequences by designing solutions that anticipate them as far as possible. To do this we need to conduct a risk assessment on our solution at the design stage.

A risk assessment can take various forms, but it asks questions such as “what could possibly go wrong?” and “what are the consequences if it does?”. Failure Modes, Effects and Criticality Analysis is an example of a technique that can be used to identify possible design flaws, but we could also use something as simple as a checklist to prompt us to identify risks. Whatever tool we use, the point about identifying these risks is for us to consider how we might mitigate them. This could mean a change in the design of our solution. In general, this would mean an increase in the complexity and cost of our solution, and hence in the EFFORT associated with the solution. That increased effort may however still be well justified by the benefits the solution would deliver. It could also mean, in extreme circumstances, that the solution we had wanted to pursue is too risky to consider viable.

Some form of risk assessment is necessary regardless of how simple or small you believe a solution to be. The Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed by the failure of an O-ring. You can download a template for conducting a simple risk assessment from the “Resources” section of our website.

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