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Celebrating Failure

Posted by admin on June 9, 2014

We’ve seen a lot of discussion about celebrating failure lately.  The thinking is that failure is not necessarily a bad thing so long as you learn from it.  As Thomas Edison said when asked about the many failures on the way to inventing the light bulb: “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

We agree with this—to a point.  If you are trying to create a new technology (something that didn’t exist before), then each failure is an incremental learning experience on the way to success.  However, the “celebrating failure” banner can also be an excuse for a lack of planning and thinking through risks associated with something new so problems can be prevented.  On a project where possible problems could have and should have been anticipated and planned for, failure not only should not be celebrated but it should be discouraged in some way.

How do you avoid these types of failures?  We’ve developed a Problem Prevention – Risk Analysis (PP-RA) process to prevent potential problems from happening and to be prepared for these problems if they occur, We call this “proactive problem solving” and our manufacturing clients use it to plan for a wide range of situations, including shutdowns, machine and equipment changeovers or modifications; new facility installations; product or process improvements; new product launches; and changing customer requirements.  The basic steps in the process are:

Analyze what could go wrong with a plan – Just about every plan has a weakness or weaknesses.  These could include very tight deadlines with no margin for error or the assumption that all employees involved in the plan will be available at the required time.  Effective teams dig into identify the weaknesses that could become problems in achieving a successful outcome.  The goal is to avoid surprises.

Make plans for avoiding the problem – With the potential problems identified, the team looks at how these problems can be avoided.  If deadlines are extremely tight, the team can look at buying more time for certain steps that will provide some wiggle room.  Or to avoid problems with staffing, schedules can be checked to account for vacations, conferences or other out-of-office requirements, or contract resources can be hired.  Extra parts can be on hand in case one breaks. 

Make plans for mitigating the impact if a problem happens – Despite the best planning, problems still occur which can impact the plan.  Natural catastrophes, a power outage, a strike or civil disturbance in a supplier country can all throw a plan into chaos.  The project team quickly regroups to minimize the impact of these problems and move the plan forward.

Any change or anything new has inherent risks.  Managers and their staffs need to take on these initiatives and go beyond their comfort zone to outpace competitors, but they must balance this with proactive problem solving to increase the chances of success.  It is also important that managers use risk analysis to assure they do not put the company in jeopardy.  Celebrating failure should be used very judiciously for those times when a problem could not be avoided and there is learning point that can be transferred to future projects and institutionalized so it is prevented in the future.