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Kevin Meyer


The Limits of Learning From Failure

The real problem, I’d argue, is that when first-time leaders fail, they often do so spectacularly

Published: Monday, March 25, 2019 - 11:02

Experienced leaders know that failure is not necessarily a negative and can lead to both individual and organizational learning. We try to embrace failure and create a culture where appropriate failure is accepted as long as it’s learned from, giving our team members the space and support to fail. That creates learning and innovation.

Preferably the possibility of failure is an intentional result. To achieve this positive outcome, an experiment is defined, with expected potential outcomes identified, and then there is an intentional reflection activity on what actually happened. This reflection creates the learning and becomes the foundation for future experiments. Many of us are beginning to see this manifestation of the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) process as kata.

Sometimes it’s unintentional, where we are thrust into an unexpected situation with even more unexpected results. A family medical emergency years ago taught me a lot about compassion, self-care, and the insurance industry. Two decades ago a rapid change in an industry taught me how to manage extreme business disruption.

And yes, sometimes it’s just stupidity. Most of us have experienced this often painful form of learning in our (hopefully) earlier years. Somehow we survived.

Failure as a learning tool has limits. Would you put a chef in the cockpit of a plane and be OK with him learning that he doesn’t know how to fly? Or letting a child try driving a car? Of course not. The learning experience of failure is one thing, but the consequences of the failure itself must be considered. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “The Truth About Failing Spectacularly,” looks at this balance.

MS Explorer taking on water

Consider this example

The sinking of the MS Explorer on Nov. 23, 2007, was one of the most bewildering disasters in modern maritime history. Sixteen months after the accident, marine safety investigators representing Liberia, where the Explorer was registered, fixed the blame primarily on one person: Bengt Wiman, the ship’s 49-year-old captain, who’d been commanding the Explorer for the first time and had participated in only one Antarctic voyage.

Or this one: In the run-up to the Super Bowl, one of the hottest story lines was the precocity of Sean McVay, the innovative 33-year-old head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The high-flying offense he’d built had turned the Rams into a contender, prompting several other NFL teams to hire untested coaches, too.

On Feb. 3, 2008, however, that parade got rained out. The New England Patriots, coached by the 66-year-old veteran Bill Belichick, devised a stifling defensive game plan that limited the Rams to three points. On a day that McVay became the youngest coach in Super Bowl history, he also tied another record—fewest points scored.

Maybe I’m trying to make a case for experience, and I’m a bit biased as I hit my mid-50s.

These allegations seem to suggest that any business ought to think twice before sending a lightly seasoned manager on a perilous new assignment. The real problem, I’d argue, is that when first-time leaders fail, they often do so spectacularly.

The main reason veteran leaders rarely fail dramatically is that they’ve failed before. They’ve learned where problems come from and how to spot them in the larval stages. Their genius is being able to identify a ship’s weakest rivets before setting sail and formulating a plan that protects them from unsustainable pressure.

Experience definitely plays into the failure equation, but in order to learn we need to provide opportunities for failure to everyone on the experience continuum. In fact, we know that some of the best and most innovative ideas often come from folks with less experience, and hence fewer blinders, from preconceived frameworks. So, what do we need to put into place to hit the sweet spot?

For starters, a less experienced person can be supported by others with more experience. This new leader must be receptive to receiving the lessons of that experience, but also confident and able to evaluate those lessons balanced with new ideas and thinking.

Perhaps more important is an environment that encourages and supports a scientific approach to problem solving and investigating new opportunities, such as PDCA and the kata derivative. What is the current state? What is the ultimate goal? What barriers are in the way of achieving that goal? What is the next experiment that can be run to remove a barrier, and what are the expected results? What are the potential risks, and are those risks reasonable and acceptable? If not, can they be mitigated to an acceptable level? Then run the experiment and reflect on what actually happened, what was learned, and how that could be applied to the next experiment.

Failure can be a great learning tool, especially if it is planned. Create an environment that supports and learns from failure, but also use the scientific method, coupled with experience, to understand and mitigate the risks.

First published March 7, 2019, on Kevin Meyer’s website.



About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.