Using "Red Team vs. Blue Team" to Improve Quality

The “red team vs. blue team” approach has long been used in military, security, cybersecurity, and business settings. It typically features a “red team” tasked with testing assumptions, identifying vulnerabilities, and role-playing from adversarial perspectives, to see whether a “blue team” can adequately defend prevailing ideas.

Can this concept be applied to quality improvement?

The purpose of any robust Quality Management System (QMS) is to establish controls to identify and eliminate, or mitigate, risks to consistently fulfilling customer requirements and any established expectations (commitments) relating to the provision of products and/or services.

In the context of quality improvement, the “Red Team” would identify quality-related risks, which “Blue Team” would address (e.g., through developing controls to mitigate or eliminate those risks).

Creating your Teams

Red Team
People identified as “pessimistic” or “negative” often have the untapped ability to expertly identify risks… which is exactly what we're seeking for this exercise. In fact, the worst people for performing a risk assessment are the optimistic/positive people who only see rainbows and puppy dogs. They tend to avoid thoughts of bad things happening… and often end up with a higher risk tolerance than “negative” people.

Some managers hold and promote a completely delusional view of the world - which they mischaracterize as optimistic or “positive”. And these managers often mischaracterize anyone who recognizes “reality” as pessimistic or “negative” (always imagining the worst). Management is often dismissive of people categorized as “pessimistic” or “negative” because, while they can see the flaws (problems), they lack the:

  • ability to articulate a solution, or
  • problem-solving skills to develop a solution.

Rarely do we ever see management being dismissive of positive/optimistic people because they fail to identify risks!

In reality… effective “risk identification” and “problem-solving” are two completely different skill sets.

An optimist simply doesn't think the same way that a pessimist does. An optimist often cannot imagine the worst-case scenarios that a pessimist can clearly imagine. While many pessimistic/negative people are social outcasts and loners, there are two types of pessimists. The people we DON“T want are those who consider themselves ”unlucky“… because they:

  • lack foresight in doing things like ensuring that their car is fueled and maintained in order to get to work every day;
  • lack the self-discipline to consistently arrive at work on time;
  • are constantly on the verge of being evicted because they fail to manage their money and make payments;
  • constantly make mistakes because they lack focus and/or take no pride in their work;
  • are irritable and/or sarcastic;
  • often suffer from depression (which can be a social contagion) and/or physical illness (associated with poor diet and lack of exercise).

When these pessimists complain, they're blaming either other people or inanimate objects for their own shortcomings. These pessimists are stuck in Karpman's Drama Triangle.

The pessimists that we DO want are observant, critical thinkers who take pride in their work… and refuse to “cut corners”. These pessimistic/negative people are often personable, responsible, and highly intelligent. They're sometimes described as eccentric, typically avoid social gatherings, and have few friends.

Blue Team
The best people to address risks are those who view themselves as “fixers”. People who enjoy the challenges of being a “problem-solver”. These “fixers” tend to be creative/inventive and able to “think outside the box” through exploring a variety of options. They're more concerned with finding the “best” solution rather than “being right”… and they welcome a critique of their proposed solutions.

The Tools

In order for each team to do its job, it must be equipped with the proper tools.

However, BOTH teams should be trained in “Cause and Effect Chain” (CEC) analysis methods (e.g., 5 Whys, Ishikawa (fishbone) diagrams, Apollo RCA, Fault Tree analysis). Contrary to popular belief, CEC analysis is NOT a problem-solving methodology. While CEC analysis is most often used in “problem-solving” to “refine” a high-level problem into one or more specific problems by asking “Why did this happen?”, CEC analysis can also be used for risk identification by asking “What can or could go wrong?”.

Red Team Tools
Upon being trained in the use of FMEAs (Failure Modes and Effects Analysis), pessimistic/negative people are often very good at assessing risk probability and severity. Whether risks are identified and handled through an FMEA, a Risk Matrix or any other tools is dependent upon the preference of the team. Ultimately, once a tool is selected, it must be used consistently by the team. There should be some lively discussions/debates relating to topics such as whether a RPN (Risk Priority Number) is useful, whether “Detection” should be included in determining the RPN (or whether it is simply a component of the risk mitigation put into place), how the RPN is different from determining “Risk Tolerance”, how “Risk Tolerance” levels should be categorized, etc.

Blue Team Tools
Contrary to popular belief, “Brainstorming” is an incredibly poor “idea sourcing” methodology. And it is NOT a “solution-sourcing” methodology.

In order to find a solution to a problem, the Blue Team MUST first distill the high-level problem down to its constituent, individual “causes” – using one or more “Cause and Effect Chain” (CEC) analysis methods (e.g., 5 Whys, Ishikawa (fishbone) diagrams, Apollo RCA, Fault Tree analysis). The Ishikawa (fishbone) diagram should incorporate the “5 Ms” with an additional “M” for physical environmental conditions (“Mother Nature”). These six elements influence variation in virtually all processes—whether manufacturing or providing services.

Once the individual causes and any contributing factors are identified, these can be assessed and categorized as “common cause” or “assignable cause” variations in the process. Common cause variations can only be eliminated through fundamental changes in the process (e.g., using different or more modern equipment) OR a re-design of a product (e.g., combining or eliminating parts). Most often, emphasis should be placed on identifying and implementing risk mitigation (and counter-measures. ONLY causes resulting from “assignable cause” variations can be “eliminated” (e.g., through Corrective Action).

For simple problems, the solution will become obvious. For more complex problems, additional training is required. Some of the best problem-solving tools are some of the least known. For example, TRIZ provides a comprehensive “toolbox” for innovative problem-solving and continuous improvement.

You can learn more about TRIZ at: