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Why Failure is an Asset, Not a Liability

April 21, 2021

Why Failure is an Asset, Not a Liability

For former fighter pilot and U.S. Marine, David Wilbur, failure is something that should be at odds with his very nature. But, David believes embracing failure can actually be an asset and a key tool for improving operational reliability.

David will be presenting at Mainstream Conference 2021 on “admitting human error in the workplace – maximizing asset reliability with human factors”. Here he explains how failure is not exactly black and white, and why allowing for some types of failure is a critical element of building a high-thriving organisation.

Time to Embrace Human Failure

In most organisations there are three primary domains of asset integrity:

  1. Asset reliability
  2. Process reliability
  3. Human reliability

Most leaders who want to create a high performing asset base believe if they focus on the first two aspects, then the human reliability piece will fall into place. It will simply do what it’s supposed to do and people will make good choices.

The problem is we often have a reductionist view of our assets: if X happens then Y. But people aren't necessarily bound by science. We’re human. And an integral part of the human condition is that we're equally prone to failure as we are to innovation and discovery.

There's research showing organisations who allow for failure see far more economic benefits than those who don’t. We’ve done our own research that has yielded similar results.

Our own body of research has proven environments where people feel connected to the purpose, feel well-led, are in a psychologically safe environment with a strong human and social capital, are shown to increase profitability.

Organisations that foster this kind of environment also see higher performance, lower turnover of people, higher safety results, and reduced costs.

Not All Failures are Created Equal

For asset-intensive organisations, the common view is we can’t afford errors. So in our efforts to avoid them, we put in a rigid set of guidelines or procedures. The procedure itself becomes limited by the assumptions and the planning factors that you put into developing that procedure.

When people follow the procedure to the letter, with complete compliance, they can end up following the procedure into an unsafe situation such as damaged equipment or injury.

This happens because we don't design for interpretation and foster improvisation. We restrict people from adapting the operation given a different set of circumstances. In short, we don’t allow people to use their natural ability to interpret and adapt.

It’s important to remember that not all failures are created equal.

There are unaffordable errors, those that pose a safety or risk of damage. These are the errors that should be bound to performance. And then there are affordable errors. Still errors, but errors that you can live with.

When you allow room for “affordable errors”, you create room for discovery and learning and increase ownership and commitment to successful performance.

An End to the Blame Game

When failure occurs, many organisations will typically play the blame game. This finger-pointing is unsatisfying and rarely leads to any sort of resolution or improvement, at least not in the long term.

By viewing the failure as a systemic failure, rather than an individual’s failure, you create an environment where people feel safe to speak up.

The opposite of the blame game is a thriving organisation where people and their ideas are valued, and they feel able to speak up and stop something unsafe. This is the foundation of a high-performing, high-reliability organisation.

It comes back to the three areas of asset integrity (asset reliability, process reliability, and human reliability). Only by focusing on all three aspects can we start to see systemic reliability.

Accept that the 1% will Happen 100% of the Time

To design and operate a system we try to plan for every single risk scenario and account for those through mitigation strategies. At best, you will account for 99% of the scenarios.

When you have a resilient mindset you accept the fact that there is absolutely no such thing as a perfect system. You can't engineer out the potential for every single scenario or error that might occur. As a resilient leader in an organisation, you recognise that something in the remaining  1% will happen 100% of the time.

You can’t control that.

What you can control is how you prepare your people to deal with the 1%.  By cultivating a culture of openness, and allowing people to adapt and innovate processes, your people’s responsiveness to the 1% becomes much more effective.

David Wilbur will be presenting at Mainstream Conference, 12-14 May 2021. David will introduce us to the idea of human error as a tool for improving organizational reliability and show you what to do instead of playing the blame game.

About the author

Lt. Col. David Wilbur has served as a Fighter Pilot and Commanding Officer in the US Marines, and a Business Unit Manager and Entrepreneur in private sector industries. From the pressure of combat to unforgiving environments in industry, David experienced a parallel demand for unparalleled human reliability. He has designed and implemented enterprise programs to deliver human reliability in operations where mistakes can be life-threatening, economically disastrous, and environmentally catastrophic on a global scale.

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22 March 2023

Esplanade Fremantle, Perth

See you there!