Posted by: productivityinc | May 11, 2009

Is it OK to fail?


Imagine this; you are a supervisor for an organization that behaves like Toyota.  You coach the workers that report to you on improvement using the scientific method, creating a very informal environment where change happens every day.   The workers that report to you are conscious of how they do their work.  They are continually asking…what if.  What if I make this little change in how I do my work, we might save 5 seconds on every part we manufacture.  You have established an environment where these hypotheses can be tested using “no risk” techniques and those that work are adopted as the new standard work.  The result is an environment that continually learns and improves as part of performing one’s daily work. 

But to have success, you have to create an environment where it is safe to fail.  Failure is an expected part of the process of finding solutions.  If workers feel that they have to “hit one out of the park” every time they come up with an improvement idea, they will be reluctant to provide their ideas.  In a Lean environment, failure and success should be met with the same level of enthusiasm and support.

During one August week we were in a plant in Connecticut.  The facility did not have air conditioning and it was very hot and sticky on the production floor.  During the week, an improvement team was working to get the cycle time in a cell down to the takt time, using 2 operators.   No matter what the team tried, the outcome required 2 ¼ operators.

During one of their brainstorming sessions, one of the team members had an idea that the hot humid air may be causing a delay in the process that was keeping them from meeting their goal. Adjacent to the cell there was an engineering office which was air conditioned. The team went into the office and spoke with one of the engineers. A few minutes later, the furniture in the office was being shoved against the wall and the production machine was being dragged into the space. It was an odd sight, and as you might imagine drew some curious looks from the operators working near the area and from the engineers in the office. The machine was run in the cool, dry air for several cycles. As it turns out the air conditioning did not solve the problem, so the machine was moved back and the office was given back to the engineers. The team pressed on, trying many other things before eventually reaching their goal of meeting takt time with 2 operators.

The fact that this team eventually reached their goal is not really the point of my telling this story.  The point I want to highlight is that the team worked in an environment where testing a hypothesis, even one a bit disruptive, was welcomed.  It was understood that failure is a natural and necessary link in the improvement chain and therefore an environment was created where it was safe to fail. 

 As a supervisor, you should work to create an environment where improvements are encouraged and failures are embraced.  An environment where ideas are continually tested and then those that work are adopted.  This cycle of continually learning and improving is at the heart of Toyota’s success. 

So, if you would like to achieve Lean success, stop imagining you are a supervisor in a Toyota like facility and start acting like one!


  1. Some say there is no failure only feedback. I recall reading that Thomas Edison once commented he didn’t fail thousands of time in creating the light bulb; he learned thousands of ways NOT to make a workable bulb. I submit this under the light of the successful way to do it.

  2. Yes, it is absolutely OK to fail. But I believe we need to change our language and redefine “failure.” We should look at it instead as as “experimentation.” And we should also set some ground rules.

    Take employee suggestions, for example. Pick the ones that cost nothing, or very little. Focus on testing your assumptions in small ways first, then figure out ways to roll out to the larger population.

    Document everything and create formal and informal processes for learning from your experiments. Don’t aim for perfection, but for small improvements (is your result just a little bit better than the way it was before?). And then follow the path of continuous improvement and experiment some more.

    True FAILURES (caps intentional!!) most often result from bet-the-company decisions gone wrong. Whether you are attempting to improve on your existing ways of doing things, creating new products, or tackling new markets, start with small experiments. And build the successful ones into home runs. Adam Zak

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