Quality also means the absence of deficiencies, failures and problems. Failure reduction up to zero-error concepts is therefore an important thrust of quality management. On the other hand, failures challenge us to make improvements. We therefore see them as both a bad thing to be avoided and a good thing from which we can draw innovation impulses. The call for an (open, good, better…) failure culture is often heard, but do the callers mean a culture of failure avoidance or one of learning from them? Or both at the same time? And is that feasible?

Two Dimensions of Failure Management

Accordingly, failure management has a professional and a cultural dimension. Quality management has addressed the technical dimension extensively. It provides terms and definitions, uses approaches for defect classification, and conducts defect management. This includes failure identification and prevention, failure correction, handling of nonconforming units, failure root cause analysis. And it includes such conflicting tasks as complaint handling and damage compensation. The cultural dimension includes the collective and individual handling of failures, our willingness to be transparent, to take responsibility, to prevent failures, and is often not addressed in a very stringent manner. After all, working on culture is difficult and we often don’t know how to change cultures concretely either.

Two Different Concepts of Failures

It strikes me that we use quite different definitions of failures when we talk about learning from them on the one hand and failure prevention as well as correction on the other. Because on the one hand, failure means deviation from a standard or rule. We have defined, or even negotiated with customers, the requirements that our product or service should meet and specified the relevant features. If we deviate from this, or have overlooked functionally relevant requirements, failures occur. Of course, we can and should draw learning and improvement impulses from this.

On the other hand, we make assumptions and decisions with uncertain outcomes, are subject to errors, conduct experiments, and test hypotheses. In retrospect, some then speak of mistakes, of wrong decisions even. Surgeons gruffly call this “postmortem smart-assing”, because afterwards it is easy to have known better beforehand. The English term “failing forward” excellently describes the culture of experimentation, in which one dares to do something that may or may not lead to the goal. We often only know because we dare to make mistakes, to reject hypotheses, to make uncertain decisions or decisions with uncertain outcomes. I would therefore never call these disproved hypotheses and decisions leading to unintended effects failures or wrong decisions.

Three Distinct Subcultures

I recognize three significant subcultures. First is the subculture of failure avoidance with an attitude of “Do it right the first time” (Philip Crosby). It is characterized by planning, standardization, discipline in adhering to rules and standards, and forward-looking action, as well as by acting with personal and collective responsibility.

It is secondly the subculture of experimentation with an attitude of “failing forward” (John Maxwell). It is characterized by the joy of experimentation, the willingness to make and recognize mistakes, to reject theses, to revise one’s own decisions and to respect this in others. Such a culture is an important basis for the ability to innovate.

Thirdly, there is the subculture of continuous improvement with an attitude of “higher, faster, further” (Henri Didon). It is characterized by measuring and analyzing, by ambition and the common pursuit of improvement.

The subcultures of failure prevention and continuous improvement are very compatible and can easily coexist. But the subculture of experimentation is mostly not good and not easily compatible with them. I cannot coherently demand “avoid” mistakes and “make mistakes” at the same time. And continuous improvement as well as innovation are also very fundamentally different. What does this mean for companies, which generally want and need to pursue all three thrusts? How do we get a good “as-well-as” of these cultures, rather than an “either-or”? First of all, it is important to distinguish between these subcultures and their underlying misconceptions in the first place, in terms of content and language. Not everyone in the company has to belong to all three subcultures. Accordingly, it is advisable to differentiate according to roles: people in charge of process, improvers, and innovators. Then it is important to create and promote a high level of mutual appreciation among these role holders. This requires the innovators’ appreciation for the process runners’ rule discipline and the improvers’ small-step approach. And it requires their appreciation for the innovators’ disruptive, experimental, revisionary approach. This does not complete the creation of advanced failure cultures, but at least it creates the necessary prerequisite.


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