FMEA to the Rescue

Applying the process behind
the scenes to provide QC oversight

by Joe Tate and Wayne Foraker

Quality professionals in higher education have traditionally centered the quality discussion around curriculum instruction and the central role of faculty. Since the release of the 2006 U.S. Department of Education report, "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,"1 however, the discussion has been dramatically expanded to an intense dialogue about continuous quality improvement across the operational spectrum at higher learning institutions.

Every day behind the scenes, administrative functions occur that are critical to a culture of continuous improvement in support of the learner-centric missions that guide the American higher education landscape. Such is certainly the case for University of Phoenix, which serves a global student population of approximately 200,000—a statistic that underscores the need for a scalable quality control program at a time when resources available for quality management are limited.

It’s all in the approach

Our team of quality control analysts for the university’s office of student records met the immediate challenge of strategic resource allocation by assimilating elements of the failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) and guidance on risk assessment from the International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing2 into our planning process. Here’s the how and why of our approach to determining where departmental quality control oversight is most needed on an ongoing basis:

1. Work with front-line managers to identify business objectives and associated risk events. This step is typically performed at the executive level in formal enterprise risk assessments, but each functional unit of an administrative department, such as our office of student records, has its own set of micro-level objectives. These department-level goals support the institution’s macro-level objectives and mission, serving as an excellent starting point for identifying and documenting the potential risk events to be accounted for in the quality control program.

2. Apply FMEA-derived assessments of the likelihood, severity and difficulty of detection of each documented risk event on a scale of one to 10. First, analyze records of reported service defects and ongoing quality control review data to determine a meaningful "likelihood of occurrence" rating for each risk event. Next, interview front-line managers, senior leadership in the department, and the institution’s regulatory experts to rate the "severity of impact" to departmental objectives and the institution’s mission of each risk event. Finally, assess the "difficulty of detection" for each risk event by asking how difficult it would be to detect and prevent it if no quality control effort were in place (see Online Table 1).

Online Table 1

3. Calculate priority scores to rank risk events. Multiply the likelihood, severity and difficulty-of-detection ratings together to give each risk event an overall priority score (akin to a risk priority number produced by the FMEA). Sort the full list by that number to produce an ordered ranking of all potential risk events for the department (see Online Table 2).

Online Table 2

By applying and continually refining this FMEA-based approach within the organization, the administrative quality control unit in a service setting can provide institutional leadership with more confident assurances of its effectiveness as an adaptive control over departmental risks.

 Such has been the experience for the University of Phoenix Office of Student Records, where use of this process has prompted the occasional reallocation of resources from low-risk priority areas to high-risk priority areas. The result has been unprecedented awareness of the risk sensitivity of administrative processes within the university, and measurable improvements in the quality of outputs for processes that were subsequently determined to be in need of more rigorous quality control oversight.


  1. The U.S. Department of Education, "A Test of Leadership—Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education," 2006, www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/final-report.pdf.
  2. The Institute of Internal Auditors, "International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing (Standards)," 2013, https://na.theiia.org/standards-guidance/mandatory-guidance/pages/standards.aspx.

Joe Tate is the quality control manager for the office of student records at the University of Phoenix. Tate holds an MBA from the University of Phoenix and a master of arts degree in English from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. An ASQ member, Tate is a certified quality auditor and is a member of the Southwest Alliance for Excellence 2014 Board of Examiners.

Wayne Foraker is a continuous process improvement manager for Scottsdale Lincoln Health Network, and was previously senior director of institutional quality at the University of Phoenix. Foraker is a fellow of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program, a certified Six Sigma Green Belt and a lean Six Sigma sensei from Villanova University in Pennsylvania. He holds board of director positions with the Southwest Alliance for Excellence and the California Council for Excellence.

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