Every Failure is a Gift [transcript]

Our design has failed: at test, at inspection, in the customers hands…something about our product failed. What do we do now? We can take on damaging mindsets before we take our next steps, and this can lead us to bad decisions.  I know failures are disappointing, but it’s actually good news. No, I’m not a glutton for punishment. I’ll tell you what I mean after this brief introduction.

Hello and welcome to Quality during Design, the place to use quality thinking to create products others love, for less. My name is Dianna. I’m a senior level quality professional and engineer with over 20 years of experience in manufacturing and design. Listen in and then join the conversation at Quality During Design.com.

We have to be careful about our reactions when it comes to failures. It may seem a little silly, but our reactions to a test failure can mimic the stages of grief. And if we don’t recognize whatever stage we’re within, or our team is within, it could jeopardize our critical thinking and our ability to make good decisions.

We know about the stages of grief of something lost. Well, we can fall into similar stages when we get bad news, even if it’s at work and having to do with testing parts. We put so much hope and energy and time into designing and prototyping and getting something made for tests. When it fails, it feels like…well, failure. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. With product failures at work, we want to make our decisions from a place of acceptance. That’s where we can start making engineering and business decisions about what we’re going to do about this failure. But we, and maybe also our team, can start heading down some of the other stages. It’s good to recognize this about ourselves and our team so we can intervene in the right way.

What do these stages look like from a product testing standpoint?

  • What does denial look like? “That’s not really a failure.” For example, a test lab inspector fails something that the engineer doesn’t really think is a failure. It may actually be the case that the acceptance criteria wasn’t defined well enough. But maybe the engineer is making decisions from a place of denial.
  • Bargaining could look like, “This feature fails, but everything else works. Let’s just move on.” Admittedly, some decisions are made that way. Just check that it’s a real decision based on data. Or, “We had a failure. Let’s just replace it with a new part and move on.” That’s just bad test practice. Don’t do that.
  • Anger and depression: I don’t need to get into these ones. In the realm of what we’re talking about, it’s pretty obvious when someone is angry or bummed out. Keeping work stuff in perspective with life helps for that.
  • And acceptance is where we want to be.

Here are some productive reactions to take when a failure happens. Doing these type of activities helps us move to acceptance.

  • When in doubt, look at the data. Look at the numbers and the results. This helps force us into an objective viewpoint. We do need to keep in mind not to try to get the numbers to fit the story we want to tell. We need to keep it objective.
  • We can also refer back to pre test analysis. Remember those event tree analysis? FMEA, especially, is an adaptable analysis that helps us think through and capture potential failures and their risks. Ideally, it’s done at a time before decisions need to be made about failures. Doing FMEA early gives us the scheduling space within a sense of calm where clear heads preside. It reduces the knee jerk reaction of bad news to rationalize that “it’s not that bad, we can ignore it”. So when bad things do happen, our past selves from three months ago told us that this failure wasn’t associated with the high risk. Or it was. In either case, we can use those analysis as a starting marker for what to do next.
  • Another thing we can do is host a design review and be open and honest with the failure and the options of what to do about it. Getting other people involved that aren’t so invested in the design surely adds objectivity.
  • Finally, I’ve got my own fail safe method. It’s my mantra during bad times like those: “Every failure is a gift.” My teammates hated when I said it, but I’d say it what I thought we might be in any other stage of grief then acceptance, and I tell it to myself, “every failure is a gift”.

Our friends are: data, those preliminary analysis we did months earlier, and other people that aren’t so involved in the success of our design. And I’d be happy if you adopted my mantra, “every failure is a gift”. I adopted it from one of my early mentors and I’m happy to share it with you, too.

Please visit this podcast blog and others at quality during design.com. Subscribe to the weekly newsletter to keep in touch. If you like this podcast or have a suggestion for an upcoming episode, let me know. You can find me at quality during design com, on LinkedIn, or you could leave me a voicemail at 484-341-0238. This has been a production of Deeney Enterprises. Thanks for listening!