Make Sure Failure = Learning

Take a look at this cool video from Space-X that highlights all of the failures that preceded their successful (and now more or less routine) landing of a recoverable orbital booster rocket. Then let’s discuss it a bit.

(Here is the direct link if you don’t get the embed in your feed:

When we see failure, or even failure after failure, it is easy to forget that learning is rarely linear.

A Culture of Learning

Organizations like Space-X (and their counterparts such as Blue Origin) are in the business of learning. They are pushing the edges of what is known and moving into new territory. For organizations that understand that setbacks, mistakes, failures and the like are an inevitable part of learning, these things – while costly and unpleasant – are regarded as part of the process.

We have seen the same mechanisms in play – a process of experimentation toward progressive target conditions toward a visionary challenge – behind pretty much every breakthrough achievement throughout history.

No Mistakes = No Learning

At the opposite end of the spectrum are organizations with no tolerance for mistakes. They expect everything (and every one) to get everything right every time. They dismiss as incompetent any notion of failure, and attack as weakness any admission of “I don’t know” or “I don’t know how.”

A few years ago, as I was teaching Toyota Kata coaching with a client, a middle manager approached me during a break and said – point blank – that it was not his responsibility to develop his people. “Our policy is to hire competent people, and we expect them to be able to do the job.” He wasn’t the only one to say that, so I built the impression that this belief was, indeed, part of their culture. Needless to say they struggle a bit with getting innovation to happen because they try to mechanize the process.

Mistakes = Tuition

Here’s how I look at it. When a mistake happens – especially one that is expensive – you have paid considerable tuition. Your choice now is to either extract as much learning as you can from the event, or to try to ignore it and move on. The later choice is like paying your tuition up-front, then skipping all of your classes and wonder why you aren’t getting it.

Learning = Adapting to Change

Organizations that manage in ways that regard learning as part of their everyday experience are much more adaptive to changes and surprises than those who just execute their routines every day. The paradox here is that organizations who value learning are generally the most disciplined at following their routines. This discipline makes execution a hypothesis test, and they can quickly see when their process isn’t appropriate and adapt and learn quickly as an organization. They strengthen their routines, and through those routines, embed what they have learned in the organization’s DNA for future generations.

Organizations that figure it out as they go, on the other hand, tend to rely on individuals to adapt, but there is no mechanism to capture that learning beyond the individual or small group. Sometimes there is a “lessons learned” document, but that’s it. Those reports rarely result in the changes in organizational behavior that reflect learning. I suppose the most egregious case would be the loss of the space shuttle Columbia upon re-entry for exactly the same organizational failures that resulted in the loss of Challenger.

Technical vs. Cultural Learning

Space-X is solving a technical problem with science and engineering. I hope (and expect) that as they become more successful they will always be striving for something really hard that will drive them to the next level. Based on what I see publicly, I think that is embedded into their culture by Elon Musk. (But I don’t really know. If anyone from Space-X is reading this, how about getting in touch? I’d love to learn more.)

I expect this works for Space-X because they have a culture of learning.

What doesn’t work, though, is to try to apply technical solutions to transition a rote-execution culture into a learning culture. Changing the culture – the default behaviors and responses of people as they interact – isn’t about improving the mechanics of the work process. You certainly can work on the work processes, but the starting condition is what evolved in the context of the organization’s culture. The mechanics of the “improved” process that we try to duplicate evolved in the context of a learning culture. The ecosystems are different. It is difficult for a lean process to survive in a culture that expects everything to run perfectly and doesn’t have robust mechanisms to turn problems into improvements.

There Are No Silver Bullets

There are no quick, simple solutions

Occasionally I get an email from someone who asks a question like “How can I improve cycle time in the [fill in the blank here] industry?” Generally my reply is along the lines of “I don’t know, but I can help you figure it out.” I’ll give them some homework, often pointing them at Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata Practice Guide online, and asking them to do the Process Analysis step and get back to me with what they have seen and learned.

Lone Ranger with Silver Bullet
Who was that masked man?

This is usually followed by silence (cue the crickets here). Perhaps they think there is an easy answer and a single email can just tell them what to do to get that 20% performance improvement.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Process improvement involves work. There aren’t easy fixes (that last). There isn’t any solution anyone can give you that can just be implemented, nor can anyone learn it for you.

The real work is adjusting your culture

Digging a little deeper, if you want that productivity improvement to reach even a fraction of your full potential or sustain for any length of time, you have to go beyond technical solutions. When I said process improvement involves work, the technical mechanics are the easy part. The real work is understanding what social and cultural norms in your organization are holding you back and dealing with those.

Fortunately we have learned a lot more about the influence of the organization’s culture and how to influence the culture. But influencing the culture doesn’t happen by accident. And you can’t outsource your own thinking, reflection and learning.


Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”