Abstract In this paper, a general form of bathtub shape hazard rate function is proposed in terms of reliability. The degradation of system reliability comes from different failure mechanisms, in particular those related to (1) random failures, (2) cumulative damage, (3) man–machine interference, and (4) adaptation. The first item is referred to the modeling of unpredictable failures in a Poisson process, i.e. it is shown by a constant. Cumulative damage emphasizes the failures owing to strength deterioration and therefore the possibility of system sustaining the normal operation load decreases with time. It depends on the failure probability, 1− R. This representation denotes the memory characteristics of the second failure cause. Man–machine interference may lead to a positive effect in the failure rate due to learning and correction, or negative from the consequence of human inappropriate habit in system operations, etc. It is suggested that this item is correlated to the reliability, R, as well as the failure probability. Adaptation concerns with continuous adjusting between the mating subsystems. When a new system is set on duty, some hidden defects are explored and disappeared eventually. Therefore, the reliability decays combined with decreasing failure rate, which is expressed as a power of reliability. Each of these phenomena brings about the failures independently and is described by an additive term in the hazard rate function h( R), thus the overall failure behavior governed by a number of parameters is found by fitting the evidence data. The proposed model is meaningful in capturing the physical phenomena occurring during the system lifetime and provides for simpler and more effective parameter fitting than the usually adopted ‘bathtub’ procedures. Five examples of different type of failure mechanisms are taken in the validation of the proposed model. Satisfactory results are found from the comparisons.