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Failure Is Not An Option…

…it is Mandatory!

I tell my kids that if they haven’t failed then they aren’t learning.  Because if you succeed the first time all the time, then you are only applying what you already know.

Where has that gone in the business world?  Companies can’t be afraid to try a new product and not fail with it.  Or a new process to create the product.  Or anything that can create new learning.

Part of the reason is people still don’t know how to fail.  I’m not saying all in on one thing and only go live with the new after having it “perfect.”

Companies have to learn how to put something new out there.  Learn from it quickly and then make changes to improve it.

If companies won’t put a truly new product out there or use a creative new process, then what are they learning?

The better question may be, “When are they going to get passed?”

Fail and learn as quickly as possible so the learning can used and the company can be in better place.


One Man’s Lean Journey: Simulation Helps to Fail Fast, Fail Cheap

In a previous post, I talked about learning a software package that allows people to model and simulate a factory before making any physical changes. After the building of the factory that failed to implement pull, my role was to model current production lines when changes were recommended and to model the proposed model lines for new products.

One of the new production lines that I modeled was for a new television technology. The Liquid Crystal on Silicone (LCoS) television sets. This technology was about a year ahead of LCD TVs and was cheaper to produce. It was only 18 inches deep which is laughable now but at the time was about half as deep as typical big scree projection TVs.

The manufacturing engineers came up with a design for the new production line. By all means, it looked like a line that would meet the production needs and on paper the number of stations and equipment needed looked perfect.

The model was built and simulated with actual unit testing data as well as workstation operation times. It was a great thing we did, because we could have had another fiasco if we didn’t.

The simulation showed the back of the line being severely starved and the front of the line being overwhelmed. The line would have produced at only 66% of the rate it needed to run. The animation of the simulation showed how many TV sets were being kicked out into the rework loop and the backup it caused. It was a perfect example of the Markov Chain in real-life.

We were able to redesign the production line to be 33% shorter and have the ability to produce at a rate high enough to meet demand and allow for growth with no investment.

This was a great example of fail fast, fail cheap. It took less than a month to build the simulation, test, analyze, rework and get approved. The company saved thousands of dollars and the product went to market on time.

I know simulation software packages aren’t cheap, but it was cheaper than building the production line seeing the failure in real-life and then scrambling to fix it or build a second line.

How does your company fail fast, fail cheap?


  • The value of prototyping and understanding before going full out is ALWAYS understated
  • Simulating with cardboard boxes to computer software is an important part of making changes, especially big changes.
  • Always better to fail early on with something that doesn’t cost much vs. finding the failure in full production mode. Doesn’t matter if it is a new marketing idea (test in an area) or manufacturing.

Failing a Test Can Be a Good Thing

Too often we look at failing a test as a negative thing.  The word fail has such a negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to be negative.  Fail can tell us what something isn’t or where we need to improve.

Failing part of a knowledge test can tell a person where their knowledge gaps are.  Knowing the gaps is the first step in gaining more knowledge.  Filling the gaps leads to better output.

Another way fail is look upon negatively is when testing a condition.  When trying to determine the point of failure or the root cause of something tests are run to verify the hypothesis.

Typically, when a test fails people are disappointed and can even get frustrated.  The assumption people make is they should know everything in their world.  Be the expert.  Being the expert means knowing where the point of failure or root cause is right away.  That can’t always be the case.  If it was, then a lot of the problems would be taken care right away or wouldn’t exist.

Taking the perspective of learning, failing the test and not confirming the hypothesis means you have a better understanding of what it is not.  That is valuable information to know.  Knowing what it is not helps to narrow the search.  Getting you closer to the answer.    Ruling things out is the next best thing to finding the point of cause or the root cause.

Like a doctor.  You go in sick so they test for the flu.  It comes back negative.  You are still sick but at least you know it isn’t the flu.

Concentrate on learning from all tests and failing won’t be such a bad thing.

Does Brainstorming Work?

According to this article, the answer is that brainstorming doesn’t work.   At least it may not in the way that I have been conditioned to believe.  Frankly, I was so excited when I read this article I didn’t want to talk about it for a while.  I felt like I had finally found the answer to a question I had been thinking about for a long time.

I can’t honestly say that I have gotten anything for all of the time I have been in a designated brainstorming meeting in my life.   It’s not that I haven’t been a part of something where the group collective came up with a better answer than the individuals.  It’s just that I’ve never been a part of something that followed the textbook brainstorming rules that came up with anything better as a group.  Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I’m so bad at it that I bring down the performance of the group.  (If I had to guess, it’s the part about not judging ideas that I fail the most at.)  I’d take it personally if I thought it was just me.  I’ve been around some facilitators that were better than others at not making people feel corralled, but not one where people really felt engaged and that the answer was a part of some sort of group synergy.

I have to hope that my experience wasn’t my fault as I theorized above.  Maybe my sample size of experiences isn’t big enough or chosen from a good pool.  I really don’t know.  I’d like to think that for all of the positive PR that brainstorming has gotten over the years that it has to have worked for somebody and there are lots of success stories out there.  Unfortunately,  I haven’t heard them and I sure can’t tell them.

Failure Taught Me a Lesson

Recently, I had an experience where I thought I had everything thought through and designed.  I even ran my idea by a friend of mine that I trust.  Everything was a green light to go.

I designing a soap cutter.  My wife buys raw soap materials in 12 in x 12 in x 7 in blocks.  The soap has to be cut down to small chunks so it can be melted and poured in to molds.  Currently, it takes me an hour and a half to cut a block into the desired size chunks.  It is not fun but it has to be done.

In the name of continuous improvement, I wanted to design a cheap way to cut the soap quickly and more easily.  I also wanted to design and test in stages so if the design was not working it was not costing more and more money.

The first step was to get the tool to cut the block into 1 in. strips with one cut.  I made a wood frame and then threaded steel wire through the frame.  The idea would be to  push the frame down through the block using the wire to cut the soap.  The picture to the side is of the tool.

Building went well except the wire broke so I only threaded it three quarters of the way through pulling the wire tight.  I went to give it a try and needless to say, I only cut maybe an 1/8 of an inch through the soap.  The wire was being stretched and even standing on the darn thing, I did not have enough force to push it through the block of soap.

It was almost a complete failure.  I didn’t get through the soap but I learned quite a bit.  For one, I am glad that I was building the device in stages.  I had planned to cross thread the wire which would have taken another hour do to form something that didn’t work.  The last stage was to add a mechanical way use the device.  Now I know I have to move the mechanically driven portion up in the timeline in order to get enough force to drive the wire through the soap.  I also figured out I will have to weave the wire to make it stronger when I add the crossing the wire.  Think of stringing a tennis racket.

This is just a small home project but by breaking the design up and not spending a lot of time building it to complete specification, my feedback loop was quick and added learning to designing the device quicker and at a much lower cost.  I spent less than $5 on the first version and about 3 hrs including my trip to Lowe’s (what’s a project without a trip to Lowe’s).  If I would have built the entire think as I picture it in the end, it probably would cost around $100 and taken me a good 25 hrs plus to build.  I would have been severely discouraged if that didn’t work and who knows if I would have tried again, because i wouldn’t want to make that invest twice.  Now I shrugged off the failure, took the lessons learned and will apply them to a second version.

When designing a product or device, take quick less costly iterations and test and make but do it with a long term vision in mind.  Streaming TV is a good example.  It started with DVDs on the computer.  Then slow choppy video over the internet that got faster and smoother and then to HD.  Then boxes where designed to connect to your TV to receive an internet signal and view video on your TV.  Now TVs are built with internet connection built in and apps to watch video from Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, etc…  Next will be selecting a menu of things you want to watch and subscribing to it and watching live over the internet eliminating Cable TV.  Pick NBC and FOX and pay $10/month and the shows stream to your TV.

What failures have you learned from?

Counting Down the Top 10 Viewed Posts of 2011 – 5 Thru 1

2012 is now in full swing.  Before 2011 is too far in the rear view mirror, I thought I would recap the Top 10 most viewed posts on Beyond Lean for 2011.

New followers of the blog can use this as an opportunity to read posts they might have not seen in the past.  While, long time followers can use this as an opportunity to re-read some of the top viewed posts.

This post will count down the 10th thru 6th most viewed posts of 2011.  Enjoy!

5.  Comparing Lean Principles to the 14 Toyota Principles (July 2010) – Previous Year Ranked #2 – The first part of a three part series where I compared the lean principles I learned from the Lean Learning Center to the Toyota Principles.  This post covers the first five Toyota Principles.

4.  Seth Godin and Failing Better (April 2011) – This post dives into a post from Seth Godin talking about how to fail so you learn faster and use that to your advantage.

3.  Sportscenter Has Killed U.S. Manufacturing (June 2011) – Manufacturing is fundamental.  The U.S. has lost it’s sights on the fundamentals and is just worried about the flashy.  The U.s. needs to get back to the fundamentals in order to get back on top.

2.  Why Are Lean People Seen As Lean People? (February 2011) – Exploring the question as to why lean people are not seen as more than just lean experts.  Looking at a process from end-to-end seems like a good business practice no matter what the role.


1.  5S in the Office (September 2010) – Previous Year Ranked #1 – Most viewed post for two straight years now.  A look at using 5S in the office.  What is going too far and how to use 5S in the office properly.

I look forward to more posts in 2012!

Top 6 – 10 of 2011

Seth Godin and Failing Better

Last week, I found a blog post by Seth Godin.  He talks about failing in order to be successful.

All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

The first thing that I thought about is how the lean philosophy talks about rapid experimentation using the PDCA cyle.  If we are experimenting then by definition we will fail.  It is what we learn from these failures that can help us improve and take us to new heights.

Seth mentions two habits that don’t help:

  • Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
  • Not signing up for visible and important projects

Avoid blaming others is one that we talk about quite frequently with the respect for people pillar of lean.

I really took note of the “not signing up for visible and important projects” habit.  I never thought of this as a way to avoid failure, but I can see that it is.  We avoid it so we don’t fail in front of important people and hurt our careers, potentially.  I know I have done that in the past or even made comments like, “Boy that sucks to be on that project.”

I think the underlying point to this is the culture that exists in the organization.  If the culture is to look down upon failures as a very negative thing and to ridicule someone for failing then I can see why people avoid the highly visible and important projects if there is a hint of failure possible.  If the culture is such, should this be a place we want to work?  Should we take the project and if failure occurs show how that can be spun into a positive?  These are not easy questions to ask ourselves and can take a lot of courage to do.

Seth gives a few tips on how to fail better:

  1. Whenever possible, take on specific projects.
  2. Make detailed promises about what success looks like and when it will occur.
  3. Engage others in your projects. If you fail, they should be involved and know that they will fail with you.
  4. Be really clear about what the true risks are. Ignore the vivid, unlikely and ultimately non-fatal risks that take so much of our focus away.
  5. Concentrate your energy and will on the elements of the project that you have influence on, ignore external events that you can’t avoid or change.
  6. When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they’ve never done it.

I really like #6.  If we stand-up and admit when we fail, don’t blame others, and call out what we learned we can start to change the culture of the organization that failure is a bad thing.  Not to mention admitting we failed, instead of blaming others, is a leadership trait that usually sticks with people.

Lets take the fear out of failing and as Seth puts it “fail better.”

Don’t be Lazy…Get Out and Lead

Leading a lean transformation is not a spectator sport.  You have to get off the sidelines and into the game if anything is actually going to change.  Too many times I hear managers and executives say, “I completely support lean and the work you are doing.”  This is a good start but that is not what lean thinking is about.  Lean is about putting the principles and rules into action.  We must change the way we are doing things or we are becoming Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.

What stops someone from getting out and leading the lean transformation?  The two things I have run into is not knowing where to start and fear.

Where to start?  is a common question.  To be honest, it doesn’t matter.  Read a book, an article, or a blog.  Information on lean is everywhere today.  Pick up something, read it, try to apply it, then reflect and see how what you tried worked and how it didn’t work.  Lean is about learning and improving, so learn something and try it.  Then improve it.  Continue that cycle over and over.

One obstacle to the learning cycle is fear.  Fear of failure or the fear of not being the expert.  People may be willing to learn and improve, but there may be a fear of failing.  What will people think?  How will I be perceived if I fail?  I don’t think it is failing that people might grumble about.  It is how you react when you fail.  If you try and fail and give up, that can be seen as failure because you never tried to fix it.  If you try and fail, but learn and apply the learning to try again chances are you will succeed.  When you succeed you will be seen as persistent.

Another reason people may be afraid to try lean is not being the expert.  I have been learning, implementing, applying, and improving my lean knowledge for over 10 years.  To this day, I still hear, “How can lean be all that good?  You failed and you know more about lean than me.”  You do have to have thick skin to hear that, but then you have to take the time to explain that failing is ok.  Learning is about failing.  Not everything works the first time.

Leading a lean transformation is very hard work.  If it was easy everyone would be doing it.  You don’t have to be a lean change agent to lead the transformation.  In fact, it is preferred that you are not.  Leading from a management role is much more effective.  Most companies pay management more than the direct employees adding value to the product/service.  I believe part of the reason for this is because we are expected to do the hard work of leading by setting an example.

Time to get off the sidelines and into the game.  It is time to lead!

Lack of Handoff Integrity and Empowerment

A couple of weeks ago, my wife was dealing with a mess between our health insurance provider and our flex plan provider.  This is our first year of using a Flex Plan that pulls money directly from my paycheck (before taxes) into an account to be used on medical visits, prescriptions, etc…  Everyone mentioned how wonderful this is.  It is kind of like level loading the payment for doctor visits and prescriptions we would need during the year.  This is suppose to be a seamless process for us.  The insurance company is suppose to automatically send processed claims through to the flex account provider.  At that time, the flex account provider is suppose directly deposit the money into our checking account for us to pay the bills.

If you noticed, I used the word ‘suppose’ a lot above.  There is a good reason for that.  The process is not working like that at all.

After a few months, my wife had noticed that we hadn’t received our reimbursement from our flex plan for several doctor visits.  She keeps meticulous records, so she knew exactly what the amounts were, what doctor, and for what.  My wife called our flex plan provider.  It didn’t take long before the flex plan provider pointed the finger at the insurance provider.  I think it was put this way, “We can’t reimburse you if we haven’t received any notice so it is their fault.”

That led to a call to our insurance provider.  My wife spent almost an hour on the phone with them.  The insurance provider said they sent it.  Their system showed it was sent on a specific date.  My wife asked how often do they send claims to the flex plan provider and do they get a confirmation of receipt back?  It was explained to her that all claims are sent out electronically to the flex plan provider on Wednesday (weekly batch and queue method) and they do not get any confirmation back of what was received.  The woman that my wife spoke with was very nice.  She very politically said they know there is a problem and there was nothing she could do about it.  Basically, we have to now re-submit for reimbursement the manual way.  Send a fax to the flex plan provider with the Explanation of Benefits.

How much of this sounds like the place you work at?  A very common failure point is at the handoff point.  Passing information and work from one person to another.  This is exactly where the failure is happening in this case.  Could the handoff errors be caused by the batch and queue method of sending claims all over at the same time on Wednesday?  Could this overload the computer system and cause claims to disappear?

Does the insurance and flex plan providers really have the consumer in mind?  If they did, I would think they would be more willing to work together to solve the problem and help consumers.  Instead, they point the finger at each other and the problem continues, causing headaches for the consumer.

Finally, the woman working for the insurance provider is the closest to the problem because she hears from the consumers directly.  She told my wife they know it is a problem but they aren’t going to do anything about it.  The insurance provider does not even have a stop gap or rework loop.  They put it all on the consumer to manually refile directly with the flex plan provider.  Would you agree that she is not empowered to make change or even suggestions?  If the woman was empowered to make change she would have mentioned what action was being taken.  Instead, she made it sound like she can’t take action because the company won’t let her.

Wouldn’t the insurance provider’s cost be less if this problem was fixed?  Wouldn’t they need less call center people answering phones?  Maybe they could be working on other improvements to the system?  Maybe the benefit pre-approval area is swamped and could use the resources to help out?

The biggest thing that irritated me wasn’t the existence of a problem, but rather they knew it was a problem and sounded helpless to do anything about it.  That sounded like the sentiments I hear every time I go to a new area to conduct a kaizen event and try to engage a new set of employees.  They can say the industries are different but the problems look the same to me.


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.