The Virtue of Failure

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

25th June 2019

3 minute read

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The Virtues of Failure

In order to innovate, we must accept the possibility of failure. Since the vast majority of inventions and ideas are doomed to fail, failure is inevitable, even for the most successful companies. And yet, businesses try to hide their mistakes in an attempt to appear perfect in the public eye. I started thinking about this when I heard about the Museum of Failure in Sweden, which exhibits the products invented by companies that their customer-base didn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t pay for.

Being ashamed of our mistakes may be a natural human behaviour, or it might be cultural, but there are times when it is advantageous to embrace failure.

Toyota’s Andon Cords

On Toyota’s factory floor, the cars are assembled on a conveyor belt, lined with employees assembling the cars bit-by-bit as they go past on the assembly line. Each employee on the assembly line has a big yellow button at arms-reach, which they are taught to push every time they detect a problem with the assembly. When pushed, the button alerts the rest of the team, bringing their attention to the issue immediately.

In earlier days of Toyota’s manufacturing, there were ropes hanging above the assembly line that served this function, called “Andon cords”. Pulling the cord halted the conveyor, bringing all work to a complete stop until the problem was solved. Although it might sound like a waste of time, it actually increased Toyota’s efficiency and the technique was adopted by other auto manufacturers.

Toyota keeps track of the number of times the button/cord is used each day. When the rate of alarms decreases it is considered a serious problem since it indicates the employees are not being observant enough.

“A stitch in time saves nine”

It’s much easier to solve problems when you to attend to them as early as possible. But to attend to problems, you have to acknowledge their existence, which sometimes means admitting to a mistake. If it’s your own mistake you’re likely to feel ashamed of it, and if it’s someone else’s mistake you may feel guilty about pointing it out and embarrassing them. That reaction is natural but somewhat irrational; we all make mistakes, and everyone knows that. It’s easy to forgive a mistake if you can catch it early, but it’s harder to forgive later when the damage is already done.

Product Design

In the world of product design, each new project is an opportunity to make many mistakes. The project itself might even be a mistake, as was the case for many exhibits in the Museum of Failure. As designers and engineers, it’s important, to be honest about our mistakes and the mistakes of our peers – even our superiors. Our projects might benefit greatly from a culture of forgiveness where we feel less ashamed of admitting to mistakes, or maybe even a culture like Toyota’s where detecting problems is encouraged and a lack of problems is looked on with suspicion.

The Virtues of Failure

In order to innovate, we must accept the possibility of failure. Since the vast majority of inventions and ideas are doomed to fail, failure is inevitable, even for the most successful companies. And yet, businesses try to hide their mistakes in an attempt to appear perfect in the public eye. I started thinking about this when I heard about the Museum of Failure in Sweden, which exhibits the products invented by companies that their customer-base didn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t pay for.

Being ashamed of our mistakes may be a natural human behaviour, or it might be cultural, but there are times when it is advantageous to embrace failure.

Toyota’s Andon Cords

On Toyota’s factory floor, the cars are assembled on a conveyor belt, lined with employees assembling the cars bit-by-bit as they go past on the assembly line. Each employee on the assembly line has a big yellow button at arms-reach, which they are taught to push every time they detect a problem with the assembly. When pushed, the button alerts the rest of the team, bringing their attention to the issue immediately.

In earlier days of Toyota’s manufacturing, there were ropes hanging above the assembly line that served this function, called “Andon cords”. Pulling the cord halted the conveyor, bringing all work to a complete stop until the problem was solved. Although it might sound like a waste of time, it actually increased Toyota’s efficiency and the technique was adopted by other auto manufacturers.

Toyota keeps track of the number of times the button/cord is used each day. When the rate of alarms decreases it is considered a serious problem since it indicates the employees are not being observant enough.

“A stitch in time saves nine”

It’s much easier to solve problems when you to attend to them as early as possible. But to attend to problems, you have to acknowledge their existence, which sometimes means admitting to a mistake. If it’s your own mistake you’re likely to feel ashamed of it, and if it’s someone else’s mistake you may feel guilty about pointing it out and embarrassing them. That reaction is natural but somewhat irrational; we all make mistakes, and everyone knows that. It’s easy to forgive a mistake if you can catch it early, but it’s harder to forgive later when the damage is already done.

Product Design

In the world of product design, each new project is an opportunity to make many mistakes. The project itself might even be a mistake, as was the case for many exhibits in the Museum of Failure. As designers and engineers, it’s important, to be honest about our mistakes and the mistakes of our peers – even our superiors. Our projects might benefit greatly from a culture of forgiveness where we feel less ashamed of admitting to mistakes, or maybe even a culture like Toyota’s where detecting problems is encouraged and a lack of problems is looked on with suspicion.

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