Chief Reliability Officer (CRO): Is It Time?

By Alan Ross posted 11-28-2018 04:07 PM


The following is an excerpt from the SMRP Government Relations' Update in the Vol. 13 Issue 6 of Solutions magazine. Find the full issue online here

Imagine you have just been promoted to the newly-minted position – Chief Reliability Officer (CRO). The title ‘chief’ of anything means the position is critical enough that an officer of the company is responsible for it and reports directly to the CEO. More importantly in this instance, it means the CRO will be the champion for reliability, which needs to be owned by every member of the organization in the same way safety is treated.

Who owns safety? Everyone!

Who owns reliability? Maintenance? Plant Operations? Engineering? E & I? It should be everybody.

While the CRO role is not a current C-level role in the corporate world, I believe it should be. It’s that important. We have a CFO for finance, a COO for operations, a CIO for information, a CMO for marketing – I’ve even seen a CPO, or Chief People Officer. Why not the role of the CRO?

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Washington, DC as part of the Government Relations (GR) fly-in with SMRP. It was the second fly-in this year, where we had targeted meetings with the White House, Department of Energy (DOE) and key Senate staffers. Throughout the fly-in, I served as the CRO of my company and a passionate reliability expert for SMRP.

While all of our meetings were extremely productive, something extraordinary happened in our talks with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). During the meeting, I noted “In my world, a reliable facility is a safe facility and a safe facility should be a reliable one.” We must treat reliability as important as safety, and we should seek a seat at the table when it comes to planning the future of any company or organization. This simple concept changed the dynamic of our meeting.


The CRO as a Change Leader

SMRP is now an official partner with OSHA. As such, I believe we are able to, and expected to, provide a unique perspective to OSHA’s efforts. We have a seat at the table.

I can attest to the difficulty we face when we take that seat. There is a strong bias to relegate reliability under the maintenance department and there is little advocacy for allowing maintenance to take a senior leadership role in any organization. While maintenance professionals can be proud of what we accomplish by keeping our organizations productive, we’ll most likely not be considered for a “chief officer” role. So why does it make a difference when we approach the role from a reliability perspective rather than maintenance? The CRO must approach change in a unique way, refocusing an organization in a way that makes reliability everyone’s focus, not the maintenance department’s focus alone.  

The point is not that we want the title change to CRO; the point is we should be acting as if it has already happened. This means meeting change head on in order to make reliability synonymous with excellence, safety, integrity and leadership.

One of the greatest leaders I have worked with shared a life principle that I believe every CRO must live by. I call it the Gretzky principal. When Wayne Gretzky was asked why he was so successful, Wayne replied, “I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be.” Simple yet profound. Are we skating to where the puck is going to be? Are we making a case for reliability?

While I have not yet convinced my own company that the role deserves the title of CRO, I have been allowed to skate where the puck is going to be. Along the way, an entire organization has bought into this perspective. It’s a world of interconnected devices – one of artificial intelligence and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) – a world of reliability by design. The reliability of an asset starts at the design stage, not at the maintenance stage. As CROs we need to lead the effort on the design of systems, starting at the design – or in many cases in infrastructure – at the redesign stage. Many of our reliable assets function in an unreliable system. Systems design must be undertaken with the reliability of the whole as the goal. This is where the CRO gains traction, becoming a more significant partner in strategic planning, asset management, risk and safety.


Awareness and Value

In order to succeed as a CRO, you must apply the tools of change management. The first step is to make the organization aware of the change. It must be presented simply and in terms that all departments can understand. It needs to represent the scope of change as it depends on corporate sponsorship. As SMRP members, we have a slanted view of reliability stemming from the long-term connection with maintenance. But to make reliability the responsibility of everyone in the organization, not just one department, we must make people aware of the value in a cultural change. And it will take culture change, not just a mandate from the top down, for success.

Whenever change is introduced, the first question we must answer is “What does this mean for me?” The majority of people do not like change because they have not been shown the value of change. Does it add value to my work? To my output? Does it require more of me, and if so, what is the value I get in return? Ultimately, an organization focused on reliability as a cultural strength will be able to provide value to every job function, providing the most value to customers.

The first thing most people think of when they hear reliability is maintenance. If leaders don’t see the value of reliability of systems and assets, then they can’t share the value with those they lead. We have to change that mindset and we do so when we communicate the value of reliability. This does not denigrate the value of maintenance but enhances it.



What is the risk of not changing? It might seem like the value to risk proposition is much like the carrot and the stick – and that’s because it is. Value is the carrot, the positive answer to “What’s in it for me?” The stick is the other side of the value coin, “What happens if we don’t change?”

Change is the only constant. This kind of change is actually a way of looking at all other changes through the lens of two questions:

  1. Does it add value to customers and our relationships with them?
  2. Is it the ‘program of the day’ or a long-term commitment to change?

A reliability initiative might be the most important thing you can do to position your company in a unique way to customers. Are your products and services reliable? Is your corporate culture imbued with reliability as much as it is with quality, value and safety? And it cannot come about as the new and shiny program from corporate. While I can make a strong case for a CRO, if it is only a top-down approach, it will fail and the CRO role will fail with it.

How the CRO role, regardless of what we call it, is implemented is as critical as the fact that it is implemented. A great idea implemented poorly might have a decent outcome, but more than likely, it will not. A great idea – and the CRO role is a great idea – implemented well will definitely have a great outcome.


Gray Beards and Google Brains

Another way we can provide leadership in our organizations is to challenge the current educational system. My generation was the “challenge everything” generation. We challenged institutions. We challenged norms. We challenged leadership. Often it was a challenge based on ignorance and youth. In many cases we were willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater because we were so ticked off at the bathwater.

The current generations of millennials and generations’ X and Z seem to have a similar sense of challenging the status quo and we should consider much of the challenge healthy. Rethinking what we always took for granted allows us to engage the next generation of reliability professionals. Some of the most beneficial changes are taking place around careers and career development. A four-year college degree is no longer the only way to career fulfillment and success. Technical degrees, apprenticeship training and careers that emphasize technical proficiency are becoming more of a priority in education and in government. On an earlier fly-in to Washington, D.C. with the SMRP GR team, we meet with members of congress to inform them on the importance of Career Technical Education (CTE) programs. In response, the Perkins Act, also known as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, was passed, authorizing at least $1 billion in grants for students to receive on-the-job training in technical career fields lacking skilled workers.


If I were a CEO, I’d think long and hard about adding the Chief Reliability Officer (CRO) role to my leadership structure and I would empower them to be a change agent, imbuing the entire organization with the principles of reliability. As a fall back, if the board did not want to add a CRO role, I’d name someone who could accomplish great things, aligning reliability, customer value, asset reliability and dependability, and of course, safety. It is where the puck is going to be in the very near future. Will we be ready to meet the challenge and drive that change?

1 comment



11-29-2018 02:36 PM

​​The time is quickly coming when companies will need to recognize the importance of reliability.  Very good article.