Not What We Mean by Celebrating Failures [Dilbert 5/7/15]


dilbert failureDid you see last Thursday's Dilbert? The first panel is pictured at left. Visit to see the whole cartoon.

In the Lean community, we talk about the need to encourage improvement and experimentation by not punishing failures.

Sometimes when you try, you're going to “fail” or not get the outcome you were expecting, predicting, or hoping for. This is true if you're practicing Kaizen or otherwise going through a rigorous PDSA cycle. A “failure” can be reframed as a learning opportunity… as long as we're learning from those attempts and incorporating that new knowledge into future improvements opportunities.

The Lean Startup folks talk about celebrating failure and the need to “fail fast” so you can move on to a better idea or new business to pursue. But, some think that “failure culture” is a bad thing. Marc Andreesson warns or complains about a failure fetish.

In an organization, whether it's a factory or a hospital, if you punish failures, you're going to make people very risk averse, which then limits the amount of improvement that you'll see. A leader's role is to encourage people to try more improvements, but we shouldn't give people carte blanche to do reckless or irresponsible things.

One thing that's probably pretty well agreed upon, however, is that we're not supposed to reward or celebrate the failure to try… as we see Wally trying to get away with.

Does your organization do anything to celebrate failures? Or, at least better tolerate them? Does this sometimes go too far where we excuse sloppy experiments?

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  1. Jamie Flinchbaugh says

    Don’t celebrate failure. Tolerate failure. Celebrate learning.

    1. Mark Graban says

      Well said, Big difference between “celebrating” and “tolerating” or “accepting.”

  2. Duane Long via LinkedIn says

    Great post. No excuse for random, “sloppy experiments.” Evaluate benefits and risks first. Of course, there can be unforseen risks, hence occasional failures. Thanks Mark!

  3. Chris Burnham says

    “Failure” in the negative sense is a term frequently thrown around by those who are only able to see and speak in absolutes. Those that are focused on improvement see the learning opportunity in the gap between the expected performance of a process and the actual results. I can’t help but think of Thomas Edison’s approach of not conceding to failure but celebrating the discovery of another way something will not work.

    Great post Mark! Thanks!

    1. Mark Graban says

      Great point, Chris. Most of the Western business world still subscribes to the “failure is not an option” school of thought, though?

  4. Karen Skinner says

    In my profession, law, failures aren’t tolerated at all. They certainly aren’t celebrated (except by opposing counsel). I think it’s one reason that Lean is difficult for attorneys to embrace. We are a very results-driven bunch. Some of that is our ethical obligation to represent our clients – many lawyers hesitate to try something completely new for fear that, if it fails, they’ll be considered negligent. It’s much safer to stick with the known and accepted way.

    And yet, those lawyers who are innovative, who try a new argument or a new method, can reap great rewards. I often think of Lord Denning (look him up – he was a fantastic English judge) was one of the great legal innovators. His judgments took the law in new directions, but he was careful to express them in language firmly grounded in tradition (even if he was about to announce something completely unheard of).

    So, with Lord Denning’s approach firmly in mind, we continue to work with lawyers to find new ways of delivering their services to clients.

    Thanks Mark!

    1. Mark Graban says

      Thanks, Karen. That’s an interesting perspective. I’m sure the same pressures and potential liabilities would drive a surgeon or physician to be cautious in adopting new methods.

      I’m all for results… I think we’d agree that Lean teaches us that the best way to get better results is through better process.

      There’s less risk in experimenting with new back office processes and methods than there is to experiment with the actual value-adding work?

      1. Karen Skinner says

        You’re right, Mark. We often begin with business processes within law firms, bringing the lawyers in at the points where they are touched by or touch the process. Once they start to see the potential, they’re more open to the idea of change.

  5. […] Not What We Mean by Celebrating Failures [Dilbert 5/7/15] […]

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