At an AME Conference about 10 years ago the management guru Tom Peters began by saying something along the lines of ‘I hear that you guys are all about waste reduction. How unfortunate. You should be encouraging waste!’ He was, of course, talking about failure, or at least the power of embracing failure – the theme of this month’s LMJ. Many have expressed similar sentiments. The economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of the virtues of ‘creative destruction’. Thomas Edison said that he had made progress in finding thousands of materials that did not work in a light bulb.

P.J. O’Rourke says that failure is what distinguishes capitalism from most other ‘isms’. Communism did not allow organisational failure, leading inevitably to the failure of the complete state. Death, too, whilst sad for the person and their family, is the ultimate force for renewal (this is fortunate because without it we would have to listen to interminable stories such as from Roman galley whip men, currently unemployed and drawing benefit, making suggestions as to what to do with bankers whilst simultaneously improving productivity).

But, of course, our culture is built around success. Think of all the advice, from ‘In Search of Excellence’ to ‘Good to Great’. A pity that we don’t hear about many of the subsequent ‘Oops!’ developments. Business school professors are full of wisdom in analysing past cases but much less impressive in predicting future performance. Economists also – it takes the Queen to ask the question about why none of them predicted the banking crisis. The ‘Halo’ effect is particularly pernicious. The “Toyota Way” is always correct…

Failure is integral to the scientific method. The S or C in PDSA or PDCA. In Toyota kata Mike Rother sees the desirability of having a clear future state. To get there requires a series of experiments, many of which will fail. We don’t always know the right path because our vision ahead is limited. We may take wrong turns, but we need to learn. Unless we deliberately learn we go backwards.

So why is it that 5S, kanban, idea management, leader standard work, and many others, have sustainability issues? Could it be that we have not spent sufficient time on the S or C? In particular have we looked at what John Seddon calls “system conditions” or Kate Mackle refers to as “measures to support flow”?

It is not good just to try and fail repeatedly. This remains the dominant, and hugely wasteful, approach to much of new product development. This is design and test. By contrast, the Wright brothers, in developing the first airplane, took a more systematic and systems approach. They examined the characteristics (size, weight, lift, power, etc.) of a range of wings, engines, and controls and then assembled a combination that worked. This is test and design. Wasteful, yes, but a more intelligent approach to failure.

Back to Tom Peters. “Come on, guys, not all failure waste is bad – as long as it leads to accumulation of knowledge.”