ALBERT TSANG: Interview Questions and Answers
By Erick Vargas
- What does Albert Tsang think, from a professional point of view and as a person, it has been your main motivation of many years of work?
- Could you express a virtue or value that has guided your life?
[AT] As a problem solver, one needs data to make informed decisions or sound judgments. This is stated as “Management by fact”, one of the core values embedded in the performance excellence model of the Baldrige National Quality Program established by the US government to recognize organizations with sustainable performance excellence. When applied to engineering asset management, Prof. Andrew Jardine calls this approach “evidence-based asset management” – decisions on asset acquisition, design, maintenance, replacement and disposal are made after analyzing the relevant data. Relevant and good quality data should be used if this is to be done effectively and efficiently. Otherwise, efforts spent on collecting, managing and analyzing irrelevant data are wasted at best, and misguided decisions that will lead us astray are made at worst. One may lament that data are expensive to collect. The good news is that a lot of the relevant data are already being collected for operational control purposes. The challenge is to extract useful knowledge from available data – the task of “data mining” in management speak. Even if imperfect information is available, such as the case when missing data exist, or the value of a parameter such as the resale value of a piece of equipment five years later cannot be predicted with certainty, we can still make informed decisions by determining the confidence interval of the conclusions made from the analysis, or the sensitivity of decisions to changing values of the uncertain parameter.
My guiding principle of applying evidence-based (or data-driven) management is often the exception rather than the norm of common management practice which is characterized by intuition based pronouncements, say contingent upon the strength of personalities, or being driven by the simplistic measure of number of complaints received.
- In your opinion what is the reason of your success in the English-speaking community? What about Spanish-speaking community?
[AT] The ability to effectively communicate ideas that work, orally and through publications, is essential in disseminating knowledge and introducing me to the professional circle. My experience as an academic at a university and a consultant at the service of enterprises is instrumental to hone my communication skills. Networking through participation at conferences, seminars, or gatherings of learned societies also helps. I was given the first opportunity to speak at the International Maintenance Symposium organized by Tecsup, Lima in 2006, through the introduction of Jaime Collantes, a renowned maintenance management educator and consultant in Latin America, whom I met in Toronto at the International Maintenance Excellence Conference in 2005. I met you, Erick, in 2007 when you attended my course in Tecsup’s Maintenance Engineering program (ESPECIALIZACIÓN INGENIERÍA DEL ANTENIMIENTO).
- What value does it attach to your book: Maintenance, Replacement and Reliability? You are co-author with Andrew Jardine, What is it the most important that you learned from working with him?
[AT] Based on the results of research in physical asset management, the book introduces readers to the tools for making data-driven decisions and how to use them. It offers a solid theoretical foundation for these tools, demonstrating applications through various case studies. Firmly rooted in reality, the applications covered relate to areas such as food processing, the military, mining, transportation, steel, as well as petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. I have been collaborating with Andrew Jardine for more than a decade in conducting continuous professional development courses, as well as undertaking research and consultancy projects related to physical asset management. Many real life applications of the tools were collected through these collaborations, some of these examples are quoted in the book. I learnt a lot from him the theory that underpins the leading edge maintenance and asset management decision tools featured in the book.
- Have you ever thought about making the Spanish version of your book in order to increase the approach for Spanish-speaking community? There are many good reliability professionals in Latin America that would like participating in the translation and working with you.
[AT] I love to see the book being translated into other languages, such as Spanish, the second most widely spoken language in the Americas, and possibly in Africa as well. I will be happy to collaborate with knowledgeable reliability professionals like you in the translation.
- You have fought for the integration of maintenance and reliability, as your long experience led you to the thought that they could add value to the company from the reliability applied to maintenance. In sum, at this time what new project or idea does Tsang have in mind?
[AT] Recently, I have been working on three issues: detection of trends in failure data collected from multiple systems, data management in CBM optimization, and the contribution of physical asset management to sustaining performance excellence.
Trend test on failure data plays a significant role in reliability engineering analyses, especially in lifetime data modeling; it can be applied to evaluate the performance of design development and improvement processes. Trend testing tools or methods for analysis of data collected from a single repairable system are already available and widely discussed in the literature. However, the problem gets more complicated when failure data are collected from multiple repairable systems, such as traction motors in a fleet of railway cars. The tools or methods that can be used to analyze such failure data need to be studied and their performance evaluated.
Condition-based maintenance (CBM) is gaining acceptance in industry. To optimize CBM decisions, one needs to consider the risk of failure as estimated from the working age and condition monitoring data, as well as the cost factor. Real data captured from the field are typically not well organized in structure and imperfect (dirty and incomplete) in contents. Such problems make the data conversion and preprocessing tasks that precede CBM optimization analysis both important and challenging. To address these issues, the data structure employed to store asset life and maintenance data must be properly designed, the common data quality problems identified, and methods to detect / prevent them need to be developed.
Physical asset management (PAM) is of strategic importance to organizations which depend to a large extent on the functions of its physical assets in the manufacture of products and delivery of services. The success of these organizations is largely determined by the care afforded to and the exploitation of their physical infrastructure assets. Industry needs a systematic approach to optimizing management of these assets. The key processes of managing physical assets effectively are those that relate to (1) policy and strategy, (2) asset management information, risk assessment and planning, (3) implementation and operation, (4) checking and corrective action, and (5) management review. Putting these processes into practice is a challenge that typically entails changes in organizational structure and approaches to managing assets. Dissemination of the methodology, tools and best practices of PAM will bring significant benefits to physical asset intensive enterprises in their pursuit of sustainable performance excellence.
- How do you understand the work ethic?
[AT] It is the code of conduct that helps to uphold and advance one’s honour and dignity. Honesty, fairness, respect for others, trust-worthiness and contributing to the Society are the core values embraced by the notion of work ethics. In making professional judgments, such as those relating to safety and reliability, one needs to consider issues holistically, from the perspectives of the organization, peers, and the Society. Courage is needed to safeguard the interest of the Society when it is in conflict with, say the interest of the organization. Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak when such conflict arises. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen so that we are aware of the mistakes we made and the flaws in our judgment.
[AT] With much information has become available through widespread use of enterprise asset management (EAM) or enterprise resources planning (ERP) systems, organizations often find themselves in the bewildering position of being data-rich but information-poor. We may have all the raw data we ever need at our fingertips. However, unless we can interpret and use such data intelligently, the information is of little value. We need tools to transform the data into information useful for asset management decisions. I played a small part in educating practitioners in the maintenance and reliability profession the availability and the proper application of these tools.
- Do you feel appropriate to mention some names of people you believe have, or are, making an important contribution to theoretical and practical reliability engineering in the world?
[AT] There are a lot of them. I will only name a few whom I know personally or whose work I studied in acquiring my reliability engineering knowledge. First is Andrew Jardine, a Professor and Director of the Centre for Maintenance Optimization and Reliability Engineering (C-MORE) at the University of Toronto. Andrew is my mentor; he collaborates with me in research and consultancy work, as well as in delivering continuing professional development courses for reliability and maintenance practitioners. The book on “Maintenance, Replacement and Reliability: Theory and Applications” we co-authored is one of the major outputs of our numerous collaborations. The other names I will mention are also accomplished scholars. They are: K.C. Kapur, a co-author of “Reliability in Engineering Design”; Pra Murthy, a co-author of “Warranty Management and Product manufacture”; Patrick O’Connor, author of “Practical Reliability Engineering”.
- Where do you think, in the next 50 years, would be directed the efforts of the reliability?
[AT] Modern societies will rely ever more on the reliable operation of highly complex systems. This reliance sees no boundary, encompassing all sectors of economy: public services (energy and transportation), telecommunications, health care, education, agriculture, industry and trade, finance, governments, and national security; reliability is also a concept embedded in approaches to waste elimination. Such trend becomes a driver of increasing demand for professionals with competence in the design, operation and maintenance of highly reliable systems. The body of knowledge needed to be acquired by such professionals should include, among other things, topics such as design for reliability, design of experiments, software reliability, human reliability, characterization and measurement of reliability, methodology and tools of risk management, policies and decision models for inspection and maintenance. With the rapid advancement of sensor and testing technologies, the acquisition of data that reflect the health condition of a system at regular intervals will become more affordable. As a consequence, Condition Based Maintenance (CBM) will gain acceptance as a viable approach to optimizing maintenance decisions. Thus, development of the technology and decision models that support effective CBM operations should become one of the focus areas of future work in reliability and maintenance engineering. Another important area that should be the focus of future development work is the refinement of accelerated life testing techniques such that design faults or manufacturing defects can be detected quickly, and highly reliable systems can be qualified through testing in a timely manner. A third area that deserves more development effort relates to enhancement of software and human reliability because software applications have become ubiquitous and many complex systems still involve human operations, especially in cases of abnormality. The fallibility of humans working in unfamiliar circumstances and under stress or other pressure is often the last straw on a camel’s back in a catastrophic failure.
- Nowadays, with a competitive market there are still some companies live without a reliability philosophy, Can you imagine this?
[AT] It is primarily caused by a biased focus on the short term. Getting the product out in the market as quickly as possible may quickly boost revenue if the product meets the functional needs of customers. However, the market success will be short lived if the product’s reliability falls short of customers’ expectation. Investing in reliability may increase the up-front product development costs and lengthen the development time. However, if done effectively, it will prevent the much larger costs of product recalls and losses of company goodwill that will haunt the company subsequently. Companies that do not embrace a reliability philosophy will put the sustainability of their business at risk.
- If I could choose a head of reliability, what qualities would you have chosen?
[AT] That person must be well versed in the knowledge and practice of reliability engineering. The Body of Knowledge for Certified Reliability Engineer published by American Society for Quality (http://www.asq.org/pdf/certification/inserts/cre-insert-2009.pdf) is an authoritative reference of such requirements. Being open minded, talented in leadership, effective in getting messages across, good inter-personal skills, and having in-depth knowledge in the practical issues of implementing reliability initiatives are the other attributes expected of the person chosen to fill the post. Furthermore, being sensitive to potential risks of failure and having the courage to speak up in the interest of achieving the required level of reliability and safety are also essential requirements.
- Does your ability to communicate and delight audiences in your courses in Hong Kong and around the world comes in your blood or coached?
[AT] It largely comes from practice as an academic for more than two decades, delivering courses to undergraduates and post-graduate students as well as quality, reliability and maintenance practitioners seeking continuing professional development. Malcolm Gladwell points out in “Outlier” with supporting evidence in different domains of human endeavors that apart from serendipity, a critical success factor of the high achievers in all walks of life is lots of practice. I concur with him in this regard.
- You could express with a brief phrase or a word what you feel when you hear:
[AT] It is a community of practice in the maintenance and reliability profession.
- In your opinion what are the commonalities and differences between theory and practice of reliability in developed and developing countries?
[AT] Most companies in both developed and developing countries are blindsided to focus primarily on the short term, not aware of the hazards of neglecting reliability in their businesses. Educating the managers and professionals on the value of investing in reliability, and the investment public on the long term merits of sustainable business performance will help to foster a stronger focus on the longer term. When compared with the developed countries, developing countries depend less on system reliability. This is the case mainly because they have fewer highly complex systems at their disposal. However, optimizing reliability attainment of the physical infrastructure assets in use will be conducive to achieving sustainable economic development in these countries.
A rich body of knowledge in reliability is now available. To put them into good use requires more widespread dissemination of such knowledge through related engineering and management education programs designed to meet the specific needs of the country.
- Is there any unfulfilled dream?
[AT] It has been my wish to visit foreign lands to share and disseminate knowledge as well as to learn new things. Such trips will also broaden my exposure to other cultures and widen my network of friends around the world. It is hoped that I will remain fit to do such things for many more years to come.
- Among the recognitions you have received during your career is that of "well known", even those granted by numerous conferences and institutions, but tell me, and in conclusion - How would you like to be remembered?
[AT] On a professional level, I like to be remembered as one who is devoted to sharing knowledge, particularly knowledge that helps to produce beneficial changes through solving problems in engineering, management, and other man-made systems. On a personal level, I like to be remembered as a candid, optimistic and trust-worthy person who is a believer and practitioner of life-long learning.
19 September 2009