Failure as Success

A great insight from a client today.

The target condition at this point is simply to establish some degree of transparency of the current condition on a status board without having to resort to probing questions to elicit what is working, and what is not.

The observation was:

“We’ll know we are succeeding when we see a failure.”

In other words, “no problem is a big problem” but I think this says it just as well.

5 Replies to “Failure as Success”

  1. The TPS: management by PID controller, all the time. Setpoint & current state –> error –> feedback.

    Which is, incidentally, why it works. (And it makes sense that it was designed this way, since it was designed by engineers.)

  2. Mark,

    A bunch of people from my company were having a bit of a debate the other day about Lean metrics. We’ve seen lots of questions about what metrics are best for measuring how one is doing on their Lean journey. For instance, I can’t count the number of posts about “counting kaizens” and how wrong that one is.

    So I thought I’d ask one of my patented strange questions. “How many kaizen failures has anybody had?” I asked. “Are you kidding?” one of my co-workers immediately said, “All of mine have been successful!” “Geez”, I countered, “Did anybody actually learn anything?” (Yes, my political correctness could possibly use some polish.) But remember, I’m one of those folks that believe a kaizen is not successful if it has merely met its goals. I believe it’s successful only if the team members learned how to make the changes that led to it meeting its goals.

    I won’t get into the gory details about where the conversation went next, but I would like to propose to this community what I proposed to my-co-workers. I’d like to suggest that one of the best ways to measure how well you’re doing with PDCA cycles – and thus your lean journey – is to measure failures. Yes, you read that right; how many times did you fail.

    Here’s my logic. If you use the PDCA cycle correctly, to try something, you had to plan it first, but then you have to do it to see if it works. If everything you try works, I’d propose that you didn’t learn anything. Why? Because you already knew the answer. If you already knew the answer, by definition, you didn’t try anything new. If you didn’t try anything new, what were you doing?

    This measure also blows away one of my other favorite myths about kaizens. That would be the one that says it’s not a kaizen if it doesn’t have aggressive goals that you then meet. Yes, I do understand that some kaizens need to have aggressive goals, but not every single one of them.

    One of the many things that makes Toyota so successful is their theory of “small steps.” They’re constantly making improvements – using PDCA cycles. But they focus on continuous, small, fast cycles. One of the things this does is insure that any mis-step is a small one. Something didn’t work? No problem, nobody was betting the farm. It didn’t work, so learn from it and try something else. See, failure wasn’t all that bad now was it?

    Your thoughts?


    1. Tom –
      I think my thoughts align pretty well with yours.
      The divergence with your co-workers may also have been rooted in the idea that “kaizen” = “kaizen events” which, as we know, is nothing close to the truth.

      A “kaizen event” is more akin to setting a “target condition” and then running multiple cycles during an intense week to get there. In that context, you bet, you strive to hit the target. If you don’t hit the target, you need to reflect on your planning process and your capability.

      But, again, in the context of a kaizen event, the rapid experiments would be more akin to kaizen newspaper items. The difference is that rather than brainstorm and list a bunch of ideas that “eliminate waste” and implement as many as we can, we would take rapid, successive, and linear steps always focused on the NEXT obstacle we encounter.

      In other words, “Always keep the marshmallow on top.”

      In this world, the difference between a “kaizen event” and “daily kaizen” is one of organization rather than structure. A kaizen event is intended to provide rapid, intense practice of PDCA cycles.

      When I do a kaizen event these days, the follow-up is not about clearing newspaper items, but rather, continuing the process of addressing issues that have been surfaced by the improved flow.

      Other posts on the topic are:

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