By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering
As appeared in the July 2014 Edition of Reflections on Excellence
I absolutely hate to fail, but must admit that failure is an unescapable part of life. Thankfully most of my failures over the years have been relatively minor. Nonetheless, they have been a true source of irritation and frustration that in many ways outweigh the successes. Fortunately my early mentors taught me to use failure, no matter how serious or minor, as a learning tool and a platform to build upon. That lesson, combined with Mobley’s 10th Law, “Making the same mistake twice is unforgivable”, has played a major role in my successful journey over the past five decades. With each failure, my knowledge and expertise increased, enabling faster and surer growth.
Unfortunately the same cannot always be said for others. Over the years I have observed far too many people who are paralyzed by the fear of failure. They would rather do nothing than take a chance of doing something that causes, or appears to cause, failure. In part, this fear has been created by a corporate culture that is quick to assign blame, real or perceived, on the closest available person. Beginning in the mid-1960s, this scapegoat culture has grown and spread widely until today it is the dominant culture worldwide. As a result, many corporations are literally paralyzed from the factory floor to the boardroom. Everyone, regardless of organizational level, is so afraid of making or being blamed for a mistake that performance, behaviors and work culture are frozen in a state that is well below best-in-class. Moreover, change is virtually impossible in an environment where fear of failure—another word for change—is the dominant driving force.
It should be obvious that a fear-of-failure-based culture is not conducive to excellence—or even mediocre performance—but few question and most seem content within it. These organizations are easy to spot. Morale on the factory floor, as well as among those in higher levels of the organization who recognize the need for change, is low and getting worse. This degrading morale is caused by frustration with an infrastructure and management style that ignores obvious problems, by default encourages mediocrity throughout the organization, and is absolutely afraid to change.
Before you object to this line of thinking, stop and think about your last decision-making meeting. Did you arrive at a decisive decision, one that effectively addressed and will resolve the real issue? Are you sure? In my role as a “corporate fixer” and later as an executive advisor, I have led or observed hundreds, if not thousands, of these decision-making meetings. In the best of circumstances, it is extremely difficult to get the team to agree upon a specific problem and its forcing functions and even more difficult to gain support for a viable solution. In a culture bound by fear—fear of being blamed for failure—it is virtually impossible. The team is truly paralyzed into inactivity.
The only hope for these organizations is an absolute and complete culture change. Fear must be replaced with the realization that mistakes and failures are to be expected—they are truly a part of both our personal and business lives. We all must learn to accept these setbacks, learn from them and implement corrective actions that will prevent recurrence. In this way, each failure makes the organization stronger, as well as reduces the potential for future failures. But remember, one can never outgrow failures. We must strive to prevent them, but not to the point of being paralyzed by fear of failure, and we must always, always learn from them.
MOBLEY’S 37th LAW:
“Failure teaches success.”
Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].
© 2014 Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.