What Failed Today?

Now and then, usually when coaching or teaching someone, I get what I think is a flash of insight. Then I realize that, no, there is nothing new here, it is just a different way to say the same thing. Still, sometimes finding a different way of expressing a concept helps people grasp it, so here is one I jotted down while I was working with a plant.

One of the myths of “lean production” is the idea that, at some point, you achieve stability in all of your processes.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Failure is a normal condition.

The question is not, whether or not you have process breakdowns.

The question is how you respond to them. Actually, a more fundamental question is whether you even recognize “process failure” that doesn’t knock you over. Our reflex is to try to build failure modes that allow things to continue without intervention. In other words, we inject the process with Novocain so we don’t feel the pain. That doesn’t stop us from hitting our thumb with the hammer, it just doesn’t hurt so much.

But think about it a different way.

“What failed today?”

Followed by

“How do we fix that?”

Now you are on the continuous improvement journey. You are using the inevitable process failure as a valuable source of information, because it tells you something you didn’t know.

There is a huge, well established, body of theory in psychology and neuroscience that says that we learn best when three things happen:

  1. We have predicted, or at least visualized, some kind of result.
  2. We try to achieve that result, and are surprised by something unexpected.
  3. We struggle to understand what it is that we didn’t know.

In other words, when we (as humans) are confronted with an unexpected event, we are flooded with an emotional response that we would rather avoid. In simple terms, this translates to “we like to be right.” The easiest way to “be right” is to anticipate nothing.

This takes a lot of forms, usually sounding like excuses that explain why stability is impossible, so why bother trying?

Why indeed? Simple – if you ever want to get out of perpetual chaos, you first have to embrace the idea that you must try, and fail, before you even know what the real issues are.

5 Replies to “What Failed Today?”

  1. Your words are words of wisdom.

    The first half of your post really made me think about what success in my job looks like. I’m a Lean Manager.

    “Failure is a normal condition”. I need to keep remembering that so I don’t get so frustrated trying to achieve stable processes. When I look back 6 months to a year, I see improvement. When I look back to last week or last month, I see there are more problems now than there were back a few weeks ago. But as you know it’s because as we make improvements we are uncovering more problems that were always there.

    If you start stepping on ants around an ant hill, more ants start pouring out of the hill. I don’t really want to disturb the ant hill. But that’s my job, I’m paid to disturb the ants and step on as many as I can in the process.

    It seems crazy to think I need to come to work each day and ask “what failed today?” But I really do love fixing things.

  2. This is a nice entry. I have had the discussion many times with ops guys about why i am disappointed when we have efficiency reports of 100% for the day/week. When I see 100% i know that we just missed some opportunities. It’s a continuous effort to develop systems that maintain sensitivity to the problems that we have every day all day.

    It reminds me of a project i was working on at a sister plant a few years ago. There was a new semi automated line/cell that had been installed and they were all very proud because they were hitting their numbers every day. So I stood and observed them for a couple hours and couldnt believe the issues that they had but didnt recognize because they were “hitting the numbers”.

    I approached the cell leader and asked when they were going to begin fixing all the miscellaneous issues and he looked at me like i was crazy and said they didnt really have any issues.

    Instead of just giving them a list of what I saw, I challenged them. I asked them to up the ante and run a little faster every day for teh next 4 days in a row. They accepted. They set up to progressively increase speed each day so that the 4th day they would be running much faster.

    Needless to say a couple hours into the first day of the increased rate the wheels were falling off the wagon. So many problems were exposed that they wisely decided to work on the issues before making another jump the next day.

    The story goes on, but you get the idea. Sensitivity…it’s important.

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