The Incredible Value of Failure in the Workplace

By on October 10, 2019
Frustrated businessman on the phone at his desk in a warehouse

“Things that succeed teach us little beyond the fact that they have been successful. Emulating success risks failure; studying failure increases our chances of success.”
– Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University

“I learned a long time ago to never talk about mistakes in this plant. Doing so is to put a target on your back. You’ll regret it.”
– A supervisor at a manufacturing plant

Mistakes. Problems. Failure. Forbidden words in many organizations. Over and over again I’ve observed employees going to great lengths to ensure that mistakes and problems — any forms of failure — were hidden.

Henry Petroski’s classic book, “Success Through Failure,” is a great source of information about the power of failure in driving process and product improvements. The book is filled with examples of how failure can drive beneficial change. Here are a few examples:

  • The 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that spanned Puget Sound in the state of Washington led to significant improvements in bridge design. Engineers learned that suspension bridges needed to have stiffened truss work as well as a gridwork deck that allowed wind to pass through the structure. The failure of this bridge influenced the designs of all suspension bridges moving forward.
  • Hank Lusetti, a star basketball player at Notre Dame in the 1940s, was frustrated by the fact that so many of his two-handed shots were blocked. Through experimentation, Lusetti figured out that this didn’t happen nearly as often if he did one-handed jump shots. The game of basketball was changed forever by what Lusetti learned from his failures.
  • Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aids were developed in response to the failure of Johnson & Johnson products. Earle Dickson was a Johnson & Johnson employee whose wife cut herself while working in the kitchen and found it very difficult to bandage her wounds with separate pieces of Johnson & Johnson’s adhesive tape and gauze. Dickson decided to make some ready-made bandages by placing squares of cotton gauze at intervals along the adhesive tape. And, with this, the Band-Aid was born. Failure drove success.

Separating the problem from the person

As I’ve seen countless times through the years as a leadership and continuous improvement consultant, the organizations that perceive failures as opportunities to improve are often the ones that gain a competitive edge in their markets. There are a few core beliefs these businesses had that made it clear they were a workplace that saw the value of failure:

  1. Open, honest communication was encouraged. Employees knew that their leaders would listen, value their opinion about a problem, and work collaboratively to formulate a solution.
  2. Problems were embraced – even celebrated – not avoided. When it was understood throughout the organization that issues were inevitable, there was a culture wherein more risks could be taken, which ultimately led to great rewards and better results.
  3. People were perceived as separate from the problem. Employees understood that if and when they reported issues, there would be a discussion around how to fix the broken processes and they, themselves, would not be considered personally “broken” as well.

As long as leaders see mistakes, problems or failure as an individual’s weakness rather than a process weakness, employees will avoid talking about mistakes, problems or failure…at all costs.

Why is this? Because of the perception that admitting to failure is the same as admitting to personal incompetence. And what’s the price of being seen as incompetent? Discipline or discharge. And what kind of culture does this behavior create? A culture devoted to hiding mistakes, never talking about failures, never admitting to having a “problem” with anything. In short, a culture filled with illusions.

It’s also a stagnant culture, treading water in its marketplace at best, facing a very problematic future. The world is filled with companies like Polaroid, Eastman Kodak, Borders, Blockbuster, and others — companies that didn’t learn from their failures but appeared to think that success would last forever if they continued to function the same way they always had. It won’t.

Failure is a vital part of success

Human beings are capable of achieving great things, but behind every success story is often a long history of trials and errors. The workplace is obviously no exception to the natural progression of trials, errors and successes. We are the same human beings in and out of the workplace, so on a personal level, we have all built success upon failure.

Recall learning to ride a bicycle and the number of falls it took before you finally figured out how to stay upright. Success grew out of failure.

Recall learning to swim and the number of times you had to flail around in the water with an approximation of treading water before you finally figured out how to swim. Success grew out of failure.
Henry Ford, one of the key architects of continuous improvement once said, “All work is an experiment.” Ford also understood that some experiments fail and that it is out of the analysis of failure that success is built.

Failures, mistakes and problems should be highly valued because they are the building blocks of success. It’s tremendously important to understand and believe that “no problem” is a problem. World-class competitors are built through the development of a blame-free work environment in which failure is valued, where problems are openly discussed, and where the identification of mistakes is celebrated.

As General Colin Powell once remarked, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failures.”

It is possible for your organization to learn how to turn failures into successes. Don’t know where to start? We can help. Check out our workforce training solutions and contact us for more information.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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