Sunday, September 13, 2009

Make Failure Acceptable

I visited a plant recently that was struggling to implement Lean. This plant was having difficulty keeping up with the customer demand. They were operating like a traditional push factory producing large batches utilizing all available resources. What you observed was lots of material and product on the factory floor not moving, poorly utilized process, and general chaos. While talking with the plant management about this obvious deviation from lean thinking to this current thinking a couple insights made it clearer. First, the management has some lean knowledge but really did not understand lean and how to implement it. Second, they were so afraid of doing anything that would affect their output they basically were doing nothing. They were afraid of making a mistake and suffering the ramifications of failure from executive management.

What do you think of failure? How does your organization or manager treat failure? Failure can be good for you.

Fear of failure is the main reason why more than 80% of people in the world are not prepared to change their circumstances. Why do people fear failure so much? The reason for this is because people don't understand the dynamics involved in success and failure.

Everything we do in life has either a right way of doing it and a wrong way of doing it. When we do it the right way we meet with success. Needless to say that when we do it the wrong way we are unsuccessful. Understanding this is important because it puts failure in its proper perspective and removes the fear around it.

Every failure teaches a man something, if he will learn – Charles Dickens

Past failures prepare you for future successes. It’s the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes”. Failures help you realize what didn’t work, so you can find what will work.

Sir James Dyson the inventor of the Dyson vacuum has been famously quoted as saying:

I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That's how I came up with a solution.

Jon Carroll a daily newspaper columnist says failure is a good thing because this is how we learn.

Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.

Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.

The management at this plant needs to understand that failure is part of success. The real failure is trying nothing to improve your situation. Lean is about thinking and making improvements. Some ideas work and some ideas don’t. What management needs to do is create a safe environment where it is OK to fail.

But to have success, you have to create an environment where it is safe to fail. Failure is an expected part of the process of finding solutions. If workers feel that they have to “hit one out of the park” every time they come up with an improvement idea, they will be reluctant to provide their ideas. In a Lean environment, failure and success should be met with the same level of enthusiasm and support.

As a supervisor, you should work to create an environment where improvements are encouraged and failures are embraced. An environment where ideas are continually tested and then those that work are adopted. This cycle of continually learning and improving is at the heart of Toyota’s success.

Failures can either destroy or advance our goals, but it's our response to them that truly determines the outcome. If we are too afraid of failure to try then we will never know if we can improve our situation.

1 comment:

  1. This is a difficult cultural challenge for companies to overcome. It does fight human nature. We don't want to change humans, just how they behave when they are working in our organization. Perhaps more than any other cultural change, this is one where the leaders have to make the first step. They must demonstrate that they do fail, that it's OK to talk about it, and most importantly, you should take the time to learn from it and fix it. This is why I believe the three most powerful words in leadership are "it's my fault."

    Jamie Flinchbaugh