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Failure: The Key to Successful Continuous Improvement

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Welcome to #BeyondTheMean! Check out this post to see what this blog is all about.

Picture it – you’re halfway through the school year and you’ve assembled your improvement team to reflect on the semester. You have pulled out your strategic plan, your implementation plans, and your monitoring plans. You have explored your data, created helpful tables and visualizations, and calculated some statistics. Your goals are prominently displayed on posters around the room and the team settles in for a thoughtful discussion. As you start to review each of your goals, you begin to come to a realization – you have failed to achieve your stated goal.

Congratulations! That’s great news!

The whole point of continuous improvement is to try new things and see what happens. Failure is a natural, and healthy, byproduct of that process. Unfortunately, society has conditioned us to fear failure and this fear of failure is often the thing that keeps us from achieving the success we want to see. If you want to push your organization to the next level, you must learn how to push that fear of failure aside and pursue your goal with intention and enthusiasm.

The failures that you experience along the way can feel devastating. They can throw you off balance and challenge your persistence, but failures don’t have to be the dead end that many of us feel like they are. The trick to sustainable continuous improvement is to learn to channel your failures into knowledge that you can use to inform your next step. As I always say, continuous improvement is called continuous for a reason – there is always a next step!

The first thing that we must do when we face a failure is re-frame it. Failures aren’t the end of the world; they are lessons along the path to success. Turn to your continuous improvement tools to study and understand your failure. Techniques like exploratory data analysis can help you look under the hood and see where things may have gone wrong. Once you have carved out the lessons, its time to take action!

There are three courses of action after a failure. One option to abandon ship. This is where many of us instinctively want to go, and sometimes it is the right option. As the old saying goes – don’t continue to make a mistake simply because you spent a lot of time and money making it. After you have completed a deep analysis of your failure, consider whether it is salvageable. In the world of continuous improvement, you only want to abandon those efforts that were complete, unmitigated disasters. This is rare, but it happens. If you choose to abandon ship, you should begin your continuous improvement process from scratch. I recommend starting with a thorough root causes analysis followed by a needs assessment. This will help you determine where you should begin your next journey.

If, as you study your failure, you determine that parts of the project are salvageable, another option is to cycle the failure through its own continuous improvement process. Tools like the plan-do-study-act, DMAIC, or 30-60-90 day planning method can help you strategically rebuild after a failure. With this approach, you will focus your attention on the parts of your failure that were successful and apply lessons learned to the less-successful elements as you work to improve them. In my experience, this is the route you will take with 85 percent of your failures.

One final option is to re-implement your process is to reimplement your process with a more rigorous monitoring program. You will want to turn to this option if your team is split on whether the project was a failure or not. If you think it might have been a failure, but are unconvinced, a reimplementation with deeper study is a good route to go. For this option, consider deploying an action research methodology that will allow you to apply the scientific method to your process and make a better determination of the success of your efforts.

Remember that failure is a natural part of life and a desired by-product of continuous improvement. If you never fail, then you never tried to do anything great! Take comfort in this fact and work to reprogram your mind into a space where you can begin to embrace your failures for the lessons they provide. I hope that this short post has helped you to rethink the impact of the failures you experience along your continuous improvement journey. Good luck on your journey friends and let me know how I can help!

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