The Editorial Notebook

Process Improvement Tip #4: Learn to use failure productively

Diana Davis
Contributor: Diana Davis
Posted: 10/07/2012

In the lead up to PEX Masters next month, we’re running a series of process improvement tips to help you jump start your initiatives for 2013. This is the fourth of twelve.

Show me someone who has never failed and I’ll show you someone who has never tried to do anything

Failure is something that we don’t like to talk about. We don’t list all our individual failures on our LinkedIn profile. Companies don’t put out press releases announcing the latest project that has missed its deadlines and overrun budget. We wouldn’t host a celebratory dinner to toast to losing the latest contract from a big customer.

But we all experience failure. And more often than we’d like to admit.

That’s not a bad thing in itself – in fact it’s a normal part of the learning process. How many stumbles do you think it took you before you learned to walk? Or as Thomas Edison, prolific American inventor, is credited with saying: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

As individuals driving process improvement within organizations there will be times when work doesn’t go as planned – a deployment that doesn’t go as expected or a technology component doesn’t work as it should. As an individual you have to be prepared to learn from that failure and accept it as a normal part of the process. See failure as a momentary delay rather than a defeat.

The same goes for organizations as much as for an individual. Organizations in which there is a fear of failure will be much less likely to innovate and experiment with new ways of working and new ways of doing things – because to try new things is to sometimes fail. And to fail is to learn what doesn’t work and get closer to something that does.

So how can you use failure productively? Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t dwell on the negative; focus instead on what you’re going to do next – just because you’ve had a set back doesn’t mean that you’ve lost the game. Sometimes when we suffer a significant set back we’re inclined to throw in the towel and admit defeat. Instead take a step back and try to look at it objectively. Just because you’ve had a failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure.
  • Reflect on what went wrong and learn from it – why didn’t things work out as you expected? What can you learn from the experience? What have other companies/people done differently that might work for you? (Or conversely, why didn’t what worked for another company work within your context?).
  • Encourage an environment of experimentation within your organization – Science has progressed on the principle of trial and error. So why should our organizations be any different? While we don’t want to encourage failure we should encourage a culture of experimentation where trial and error is seen as positive.

And if failure results along the way, as it inevitably will, take Henry Ford’s advice: "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently."

View other tips:

Process Improvement Tip #1: Ensure your approach is suited to the problem you face

Process Improvement Tip #2: Speak the same language as your audience

Process Improvement Tip #3 - Make sure everyone understands the need for change

Diana Davis
Contributor: Diana Davis
Posted: 10/07/2012

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