Probing the limits: Precious Mistakes

January 1, 2007
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Quite often, disappointing results or failed projects can be the greatest opportunities for major continual improvement.


There are many dimensions to the quality assurance profession, but the aspect that I’ve enjoyed the most is working on breakthrough process and product improvements. Breakthrough improvements are different from continual improvement in that they usually involve major overhauls-instead of steady refinements-to a process. Breakthrough improvements can quickly give a business a significant strategic advantage over the competition.


Quite often, disappointing results or failed projects can be the greatest opportunities for major continual improvement.


There are many dimensions to the quality assurance profession, but the aspect that I’ve enjoyed the most is working on breakthrough process and product improvements. Breakthrough improvements are different from continual improvement in that they usually involve major overhauls-instead of steady refinements-to a process. Breakthrough improvements can quickly give a business a significant strategic advantage over the competition.


In the past year, my company has done some innovative things that have lead to unique product features. As I look back at how each of these valuable features was developed, many of them got their start from crushing disappointments. When I started this business, I knew that I would make many mistakes. What I didn’t know was how painful some of those mistakes would be. What’s been a pleasant surprise, though, is that I was able to make lemonade from many of those lemons.


My company is involved with teaching innovation skills, and as I’ve learned more about how real innovation occurs, it has helped me build a business that can compete with larger, well-established companies. I’ve learned from research on innovative people, and from my own experience, that people who take risks, understanding that there is value in making mistakes, are the ones who most often accomplish dramatic quality improvements. They leverage their insightful knowledge from past mistakes and their willingness to try new things-that might not work-to put themselves in a position to deliver results that exceed expectations.


Bad results and mistakes are never fun. They hurt and can be demoralizing. What innovative people realize, though, is that bad results are signaling that something different and new needs to be done to achieve the desired results. This can be a blessing; if you can overcome the frustration associated with initial failure and take on  the challenge of inventing a new process or new product feature, you are now on the path to a breakthrough. You may or may not be successful in inventing a breakthrough solution, but you are on the path and now have a chance to invent a breakthrough process or product improvement.
It is easier to understand the concept of precious mistakes when the situation is reversed. Take a situation where you start a project, make a plan, execute the plan, things go fairly well and the project is successful. In this situation, you probably took the standard approach to getting the tasks done and did a good job managing the project.


While completing a successful project is something to feel good about, there may have been a missed opportunity to get breakthrough improvements from the project. Was it your objective to simply get the job done, or was it your goal to take some risks that could take the business to a new level of performance in your industry?


Dr. Marvin Bartel, a creativity expert who I work with, often says, “Successes make us feel good, but mistakes teach us valuable lessons.” People good at making quality improvements are the people who are willing to try nonstandard approaches to problems, understanding full well that they may not work. When they don’t work, they don’t feel good, but understand that the unique things they learn will empower them to deliver greater results in the long run. A project that has a good result is a one-time event; valuable lessons and insights last a lifetime.
After a year of running my own business, parts are running well, but I’m struggling with other parts. I wish that all parts of the business were running smoothly, but at the same time, I realize that struggling in some areas and being forced to do things differently from the status quo will probably be a blessing for the long-term health of the company.


Doing things differently and breaking new ground is hard work and can be frustrating. At the same time, those efforts are what give businesses strategic quality advantages. Now when bad things happen in my business, I first say, “Ouch, that really hurt.” Then I say, “I bet there is a way to address this problem in a completely new way that my competitors are too comfortable to try.”

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