Fail Your Way to Success

In April 2011, the Harvard Business Review dedicated an entire issue to failure: how to learn from it to achieve greater success. Mentally, we don't want to think about our failures, but we also tend to ascribe special talents to our sucesses. Neither is a good choice. We tend to blame people for failures that are baked into the systems we use. 

In corporations, there are:

  • Preventable failures - failures that can be mistake-proofed
  • Unavoidable failures - complexity leads to conditions for failure
  • Good failures - experimentation in research and development

Unfortunately, most companies aren't mentally prepared to eat the breakfast of champions: analysis of failure.

Failure to Analyze Failures
Author Amy C. Edmonson says "failure analysis is often limited and ineffective--even in complex organizations like hospitals, where human lives are at stake." The November 2010 New England Journal of Medicine concluded that "despite a dozen years of heightened awareness, hospitals have not become safer." 

What's the secret to analyzing failures? The Five Whys. Just ask "Why?" five times. Why did this cause that? And why did (answer) cause that? And so on until you find the "root cause." Pretty simple, but few do it. 

Then figure out a way to prevent the mistake, error or glitch forever

Sometimes, analyzing failures isn't the answer. Sometimes you have to fail faster. 

Failure to Accelerate Failures
Thomas Watson of IBM said: "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate." Walt Disney filed bankruptcy twice before finding the formula we now know as Disney. Apple Computer's Lisa failed, but made way for the Macintosh. 

As described in Atul Gawande's, Checklist Manifesto, the World Health Organization's surgical checklist reduced deaths by 47%. In spite of these results, by the end of 2009 only 10% of hospitals had adopted it. Surgeons and hospitals need to accelerate their adoption rate. 

Are you failing to analyze your failures? Are you failing to accelerate your experimentation and failure rate? As Peter Senge says, your only option is to learn faster than your competition. It doesn't matter if your competition is a coworker or another company. Failure is can accelerate learning, but you have to use it to your advantage. Few do. Are you one of the few?

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008-2024 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, 888-468-1537, ."