Success From Failure

by Jimmy L. Smith, Jim Smith Quality

Productive failures can provide the seeds for future successes.

Throughout our development years and even into adulthood, most people have been taught to believe that failure is negative. Quite often, however, disappointing results can provide the greatest opportunities for further improvement.

There are many dimensions to the quality profession, but the aspect that I’ve enjoyed the most during my career has been working on continuous process improvement, product improvement and breakthrough improvement.

Breakthrough improvements are different than continuous improvement in that they typically involve major overhauls—instead of steady refinements—to a process or product. Businesses dedicated to continuous improvement have a competitive advantage over those with a stagnant culture. In addition, continuous improvement cultures promote breakthrough improvements, which catapult those businesses to the forefront and leave others fighting for survival.

I’ve benefited from being part of several innovative endeavors that have led to unique process improvement and product features. As I look back at how many of these improvements and features were developed, a few got their start from crushing disappointments. 

As a quality professional, I’ve had the privilege to work alongside a few brilliant innovators. From those associations, I’ve learned that people who take risks fully understand that there is value in making mistakes. These are the individuals who most often accomplish dramatic quality improvements. They leverage their insightful knowledge from past mistakes and their willingness to adapt and try new things to put themselves in a position to deliver results. 

Consider Thomas A. Edison, one of history’s greatest inventors, with claim to 1,093 patents. He failed repeatedly on his journey to create a successful incandescent light bulb, but concluded, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” His failure to find the right combination of elements spurred him on to success.

Building On Productive Failures
Certainly, negative results and mistakes are never fun. They can be disturbing or even crushing, but they should never become demoralizing. What innovative people realize is that negative results are a signal that something different needs to be done to achieve the desired results. As Edison and others like him realized, failure can be a “blessing in disguise.” If you can overcome the frustration associated with initial failure and take on the challenge of inventing a new process or product feature, you might be on the path to a breakthrough. You may or may not be successful, but you have another chance at success.

It is easier to understand the concept of productive mistakes when the situation is reversed. Take a situation where you start a project, develop a plan, execute the plan, and the project is successful. In this situation, your assumptions were correct; you most likely took the standard approach to getting the tasks done and did a good job managing the project.

But while completing a successful project is something to feel good about, you may have missed an opportunity to get breakthrough improvements from the project. Was it your objective to simply get the job done—or was it your goal to take some calculated risks that could take the business to a new level of performance?

In a productive failure, you may not achieve your objective, but you come away with new knowledge and understanding that will increase your chances of success on the next try. A nonproductive success occurs when you achieve your objective, but you’re not sure what it was you did right. You can build on productive failures. You can’t build on nonproductive successes.

The more actions you take, the more productive failures you’ll experience. Years ago, while leading a significant continuous improvement effort, we adopted the slogan, “Become more successful by increasing your failure rate.” The more productive failures you experience, the more you’ll learn. Remember that Edison experienced about 10,000 productive failures before finding the right filament for his incandescent lamp.

Lessons Learned
Success makes us feel good, but mistakes teach us valuable lessons. Those who excel at making quality improvements are willing to try nonstandard approaches to problems, understanding full well that they may not work. When they don’t work, it doesn’t feel good, but the unique things they learned can empower them to deliver greater results in the long run. A project with a good result is a one-time event, but the valuable lessons learned from a nonproductive failure can provide insights that last a lifetime.

Those who struggle to achieve their objectives or successfully complete a project may be forced to do some things differently. This struggle, if handled positively, will often be a blessing in the long term. Take, for instance, the invention of sticky notes. Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, failed to invent a super-strong adhesive; instead, he came up with a super-weak one—a failure looking for an application which wasn’t apparent until six years later! 

Doing things differently and breaking new ground is hard work and can be frustrating. At the same time, those efforts are what gives businesses strategic advantages. Years ago, an inventor friend taught me to adopt a new line of thinking about failure. When bad things happen, first think, “Darn, that is really disappointing.” Then quickly pivot to, “How can I turn this into something useful?” 

Think about this for a moment to consider how you can adjust your mindset. Most likely you won’t become another Thomas Edison, but there’s no doubt you can find ways to be more productive. iBi