Learning from Things that Didn’t Work

By Jon Miller Updated on May 15th, 2017

One of the common objections we hear to doing kaizen is that “We’ve tried it before and it didn’t work,” as if past failures were ever a reason for not trying again. Experience is a good teacher only if we step over the line from the past to the present and try again to make it work. If we use past failures as a reason not to try again, we are on the left side of the line, and we cease to learn.
In fact there is no past, only our memory of it that we carry now in our minds. The only reality is what we do next with that information. Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

We are hearing more of so-called lean failures because more and more companies are jumping into lean as if there is a limited supply of it (perhaps there is), and haste makes waste. This is like jumping in an automobile and driving towards the promised land that someone told you is “that way” on a map. However it’s rarely that the lines are drawn wrong lines on the map: it’s the pot holes in the road that give you a flat tire. These pot holes, detours and minor mechanical problems are part of the trip, not a reason to turn back. There is no back, only a trip in the wrong direction.

Harry Truman said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

Failure is a condition of experimentation, and all changes are experiments. We can almost never predict the future with 100% confidence. If we can, we are only confirming something we know, not learning. We can only test our theories based on what we know of the past and what we predict of the future, and what we do. Failure is OK, as long as it is only an event and not a condition. It is only a condition when you live in the failure event, which lies on the “past” side of the line. Leave it behind and try again.

Taiichi Ohno said, “Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with you head, think with your hands.”

Go see. Try. Fail. Learn. Try again. Have courage.

  1. Ismael

    August 6, 2008 - 1:40 am

    Excellent post, as usual.
    I guess there is a mistake in Ohno’s last quote as if the “eye” word were missing ?

  2. Bob Emiliani

    August 6, 2008 - 6:03 am

    Jon – Seems there a word missing after the first “your”?
    “Don’t look with your, look with your feet.
    Bob E.

  3. Jon Miller

    August 6, 2008 - 6:53 am

    Well spotted.
    Now corrected to say “Don’t look with you eyes,”
    Not enough looking with my eyes, apparently.
    Thanks to both of you.

  4. Brian D

    August 7, 2008 - 7:23 am

    Jon – As a long time reader, I appreciate your insights. One thing that you have mentioned in the past that fits here is our cultural shortcoming of not wanting to make mistakes or be “wrong”. Most of this is due to the punishment involved…we soon learn to hide mistakes, and not acknowledge and share them, then and move on.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.