Structured What-If Technique as a Risk Assessment Tool

The structured what-if technique, SWIFT, is a high-level and less formal risk identification technique that can be used independently, or as part of a staged approach to make bottom-up methods such as FMEA more efficient. SWIFT uses structured brainstorming in a facilitated workshop where a predetermined set of guidewords (timing, amount, etc.) are combined with prompts elicited from participants that often begin with phrases such as “what if?” or “how could?”.

At the heart of a SWIFT is a list of guidewords to enable a comprehensive review of risks or sources of risk. At the start of the workshop the context, scope and purpose of the SWIFT is discussed and criteria for success articulated. Using the guidewords and “what if?” prompts, the facilitator asks the participants to raise and discuss issues such as:

  • known risks
  • risk sources and drivers
  • previous experience, successes and incidents
  • known and existing controls
  • regulatory requirements and constraints

The list of guidewords is utilized by the facilitator to monitor the discussion and to suggest additional issues and scenarios for the team to discuss. The team considers whether controls are adequate and if not considers potential treatments. During this discussion, further “what if?” questions are posed.

Often the list of risks generated can be used to fuel a qualitative or semi-quantitative risk assessment method, such as an FMEA is.

A SWIFT Analysis allows participants to look at the system response to problems rather than just examining the consequences of component failure. As such, it can be used to identify opportunities for improvement of processes and systems and generally can be used to identify actions that lead to and enhance their probabilities of success.

What-If Analysis

What–If Analysis is a structured brainstorming method of determining what things can go wrong and judging the likelihood and consequences of those situations occurring.  The answers to these questions form the basis for making judgments regarding the acceptability of those risks and determining a recommended course of action for those risks judged to be unacceptable.  An experienced review team can effectively and productively discern major issues concerning a process or system.  Lead by an energetic and focused facilitator, each member of the review team participates in assessing what can go wrong based on their past experiences and knowledge of similar situations.

What If?AnswerLikelihoodSeverityRecommendations
What could go wrong?What would happen if it did?How likely?ConsequencesWhat will we do about them Again – prevent and monitor
What-If Analysis

Steps in a SWIFT Analysis

SWIFT Risk Assessment
  1. Prepare the guide words: The facilitator should select a set of guide words to be used in the SWIFT.
  2. Assemble the team: Select participants for the SWIFT workshop based on their knowledge of the system/process being assessed and the degree to which they represent the full range of stakeholder groups.
  3. Background: Describe the trigger for the SWIFT (e.g., a regulatory change, an adverse event, etc.).
  4. Articulate the purpose: Clearly explain the purpose to be served by the SWIFT (e.g., to improve effectiveness of the process).
  5. Define the requirements: Articulate the criteria for success
  6. Describe the system: Provide appropriate-level textual and graphical descriptions of the system or process to be risk assessed. A clear understanding is necessary and can be is established through interviews, gathering a multifunctional team and through the study of documents, plans and other records. Normally the
  7. Identify the risks/hazards: This is where the structured what-if technique is applied. Use the guide words/headings with each system, high-level subsystem, or process step in turn. Participants should use prompts starting with the phrases like “What if…” or “How could…” to elicit potential risks/hazards associated with the guide word. For instance, if the process is “Receipt of samples,” and the guide word is “time, timing or speed,” prompts might include: “What if the sample is delivered at a shift change” (wrong time) or “How could the sample be left waiting too long in ambient conditions?” (wrong timing).
  8. Assess the risks: With the use of either a generic approach or a supporting risk analysis technique, estimate the risk associated with the identified hazards. In light of existing controls, assess the likelihood that they could lead to harm and the severity of harm they might cause. Evaluate the acceptability of these risk levels, and identify any aspects of the system that may require more detailed risk identification and analysis.
  9. Propose actions: Propose risk control action plans to reduce the identified risks to an acceptable level.
  10. Review the process: Determine whether the SWIFT met its objectives, or whether a more detailed risk assessment is required for some parts of the system.
  11. Document: Produce an overview document to communicate the results of the SWIFT.
  12. Additional risk assessment: Conduct additional risk assessments using more detailed or quantitative techniques, if required. The SWIFT Analysis is really effective as a filtering mechanism to focus effort on the most valuable areas.

Guideword Examples

The facilitator and process owner can choose any guide words that seem appropriate. Guidewords usually stem around:

  • Wrong: Person or people
  • Wrong: Place, location, site, or environment
  • Wrong: Thing or things
  • Wrong: Idea, information, or understanding
  • Wrong: Time, timing, or speed
  • Wrong: Process
  • Wrong: Amount
  • Failure: Control or Detection
  • Failure: Equipment

If your organization has invested time to create root cause categories and sub-categories, the guidewords can easily start there.

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