Pushing to Failure

When testing a product, I was taught to test it until it failed.  When it fails, learn why it failed and make the product better.  Instead, we test the bare minimum.  What are the specs we need to pass? When we pass those minimum requirements, stop testing.  The product is consider a success at this point.  There is no need to go any further.  Then it is used in the field in a way that was not anticipated and it fails.  Whereas, if we tested the product to failure, we might have seen this and prevented it from happening.  Then the product is used in the field in the unanticipated manner but it is still successful.

Why isn’t that approach taken more often with our processes or our thinking?  Push our process or thinking until it fails.  When it does fail, use it as a learning opportunity to improve.  Looking back, the failures I had were some of the best lessons I have learned.

When I was in the auto industry, two of us were tasked with training and implementing a plant wide pull system in about 6 weeks.  Neither of us had ever implemented a pull system.  We had to develop the training, and then train 550 employees 6 at a time.  We got to check the box, but we had some big issues with the system itself.  We fixed the system as we went and it ended up working well.  That initial system failure and learning has been invaluable as I have helped implement other pull systems at other companies.

This way of thinking ties in with Toyota Principle #1: “Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.” If we are practicing this principle, then a failure now that causes significant learning for the future will help us develop processes that are more efficient, robust, or just plain better for the future.

I believe that more than ever we need to pushing our processes and thinking all the way to failure.  The ones who do this best will be big winners coming out of the economic downturn as well as receive more business that is returning from overseas.  Why?  Because the companies pushing the limits on their processes and thinking will better understand their capabilities, processes, and people more than the ones who didn’t push themselves.

Why don’t we push our processes and our thinking to the point of failure?  Are we afraid of people perceiving us failures, instead of innovators?  There is a lot of pressure put on us to succeed and succeed quickly.  But are we getting the opportunities we need to push the limits?  How do we overcome the fear of failing……….and the perception of being a failure?  How do we get our companies to embrace failure as good thing?  If and only if we use that failure to learn and improve so we can push our limits further.



Posted on May 18, 2010, in Learning, Principles and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Good post Matt. I agree – the goal is to find the weaknesses that already exist, not to avoid failure. I wrote about testing for the actual use a while back in this post: http://jamieflinchbaugh.com/2009/12/test-for-actual-use-not-intended-use/

    • Thanks for adding the link to your post, Jamie. I knew I had read something similar lately but couldn’t remember where. Your post is a great one. Glad we could tie them together.

  2. Many good points Matt. Lots of companies fail at successfully implementing lean due to a short-sighted philosophy. I believe one of the keys to long-term lean success is creating a culture where failure is put into proper context:

    Failure(s) while striving to achieve lofty goals needs to be accepted and even encouraged. People are much more willing to risk their reputation and energy working in this kind of positive environment.

    Failing repeatedly at the same thing should be viewed as waste. Oftentimes, this kind of waste is due to poor communication or an improper business structure.

    The most significant gains I’ve consistently seen during my lean career have come from a moonshine shop. Lots of fun, lots of success, with lots of failures along the way. With the right team, working in the right culture, the possibilities are endless.

    Somewhere, we lost the culture that enables lean innovation. I think it directly ties to lack of respect. Your point regarding the pressure to succeed and succeed quickly is right on. Too many companies today are trying to take a lean shortcut, focusing only on continuous improvement. They’ve cut back on the hard work of respecting their employees. It doesn’t work.


    • The pressure to succeed and not fail is something worth studying more. I know that as a person brought in to help my company, I am looked at as the subject matter expert. If I tell them I don’t know or we can learn together based on what I have learned from the past, I get a puzzled look. I tend to not challenge myself enough at times in order to gain credibility.

      Can any consultants shed any light on this topic? Can you allow yourself to be pushed to failure with a client? Is so, do clients look at you as not a very good consultant? Or do they understand? Do they allow you to help them fix the breakdowns and get better? I imagine the pressure to succeed is even greater as a consultant.

  3. Interesting questions you pose on how to manage the perception dilemma of expertise and failure.
    Managing the failure aspect of the dilemma, usually involves setting expectations up front or as you go. I have found most leaders, peers and subordinates are willing to give the ‘expert’ the benefit as long as some perceived value it delivered. I also believe most people put a lot of internal expectations to make no mistakes….this adds to the tremendous anxiety or pressure.

    On failures….I have always looked at Failures and Learnings as the same. Rapid Prototyping….when one rapidly prototypes, they have given themselves permission to Fail & Learn quickly. At times I have even referred to Rapid Prototyping (aka Moonshining) as Rapid Failing or Rapid Learning. When you use a multitude of analogies to describe the concept and what you expect, I believe it helps set you (as the expert) up for latitude within the perceptioin dilemma.

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