The Right Way and Wrong Way to Fail

June 23, 2016
We often hear about how important failure is to success. But as you pursue digital transformation of your manufacturing operations, there are in fact wrong ways to fail. Here are some tips about how to go about it correctly.

Thomas Edison has several quotes relating to success and failure, with one of the most famous being, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As businesses come to grips with the challenges presented by digital transformation and the deployment of the technologies that enable it—such as cloud, Big Data, predictive analytics, mobility and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)—we sense that past failures are inhibiting progress in far too many companies.

In essence, these companies are failing in the wrong way. In other words, yes, there is a right way to fail. One of the worst ways to fail is to refuse to try anything that has an uncertain outcome. Another way to fail spectacularly is to fail the same way again and again, never learning from your previous failures. This all begs an answer to the key question: What is the right way to fail?

Fail often and fail fast

A key message that we hear at LNS Research at virtually every industry event we attend is that to be successful you need to fail often and fail fast. This axiom is from the book “Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win,” by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz. It’s more of a personal career development handbook than a business operational excellence guide, but the underlying message is applicable. This controversial expression is based on the idea that successful businesses do a lot of experimentation, which, as Edison notes, is fundamental to invention. That is the “fail often” part of the equation. The “fail fast” part has to do with recognizing when something isn’t working and making an adjustment to your approach.

The best way to think about this and perhaps the better way to phrase the approach you should take is that you need to not be afraid to experiment and constantly be learning from your mistakes. Also, take small but smart incremental steps toward your goal with constant evaluation of whether you are achieving the results you seek.

Failure can lead to operational excellence

The real way to achieve operational excellence is to use continuous improvement tools and methodologies to succeed fast by recognizing when a failure is approaching and make corrective actions before the failure becomes so large that recovery is difficult. This concept can be broken down into a few key steps to apply it to digital transformation:

  • Define what digital transformation means in the context of your business.
  • Identify the process areas that support operational excellence in your business.
  • Map how people, process and technology align to create an operational architecture to support your efforts.
  • Initiate a number of proof-of-concept projects that begin your journey.
  • Learn from those projects and evaluate their actual contribution to your goals.
  • Readjust your plan based on those learnings.

The only traps to be cautious of is that you could fall into the habit of accepting failure as inevitable, that you repeat your failures over and over again or, most devastating, that you take so long to fail that you don’t recognize failure for what it is.

>>Dan Miklovic is a principal analyst for LNS Research. His primary focus is on R&D in the asset and energy management practices.

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