Don’t design for failure

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“Don’t spend time and money designing for failure” That was a favourite expression of the manufacturing director of a food manufacturing company I worked for. He was very much a visionary person and prepared to challenge the acceptance of failure as the norm. In fact, his message was quite clear; rather than waste time on complex systems which was the failure of the primary process, it is better to spend the time on getting the primary process perfected.

Designing for failure is wasteful as it allocates resources, departments and all of the associated complexities to something that could be avoided if the process was made right the first time.

Designing for failure, or at least the acceptance of, is everywhere; here are some examples:

WhereTypical approachImpactDifferent thinking?
Food manufacturingThe installation of equipment to reprocess confectionery bars which are misshapen or do not conform to the required dimensionsIncreased investment, increased operating and maintenance costHow to make the process right first time so that the product is always correct
Water IndustryThe installation of several back-up pumps in case of failure of the primary pumpIncreased investment
Eliminate the causes of failure of the primary pump or detect the onset of failure of the primary pump
ManufacturingThe allocation of maintenance resource around the clock in case of plant failureSignificant increase in operating costs including shift allowance and management timeEliminate the causes of failure. When an aeroplane flies for 12 hours there are no maintenance resources required
Air travelLost baggage services for when bags are mishandled, delayed or lostDepartments and resources employed to deal with the issues, compensation paid, reputation damagedGPS tracking of all bags, real-time information for all passengers
FactoriesCleaning teams to clean spillages from floors contractors or internal resources spending time cleaningeliminate the source of the spillages by better design
Manufacturingthe existence of warehouses to store finished product in case of fluctuations in supply or demandmoney tied up in stock and rent of warehouse spaceaccurate demand forecasting, more reliable processes
Manufacturinga start-up period for adjustments of processes until they reach a stable stateLost production time and the waste of materialsEliminate the sources of fluctuation. Most modern cars start with the push of a button
ManufacturingThe use of expensive inspection systems to detect for product contamination or defectsLarge capital installations requiring investment and maintenanceEliminate the sources of contamination
EquipmentThe facility for the operator to make many adjustments to allow for variation in raw materialslots of adjustments made meaning reduced productivityeliminate the sources of variation in the raw materials
PeopleThe facility for people to be paid over time rates to work extra hours to make up for losses during normal production timethe acceptance of failure and increased labour costs, more expensive products or reduced marginno overtime but more rewarding rates for achieving targets within the prescribed time


To the majority of people, acceptance of failure is so normal they find it difficult to see that there is an alternative solution. To make it visible requires visionary leaders. Visionary leaders set challenging goals and create a belief that these are attainable. These challenging goals are paradigm-shifts in thinking.

A paradigm shift in thinking is something that people may find it ridiculous, to begin with, but, in fact, is only impossible due to artificial constraints in people’s minds. Here are some examples of paradigms-shifts in thinking:

  • In 1950 it took 67 seconds to change the wheels on a Formula One racing car. Today it takes less than 3 seconds.
  • It is possible to refuel an aircraft mid-flight yet we have to stop our production processes for several hours to change from one product to the next.
  • Most ice cream factories need to stop daily to defrost. Yet, as proven by others, through the elimination of the water from the air, it is possible to run for up to 4 weeks without defrosting.
  • It is possible to operate equipment continuously without failures. Aircraft do this, day in, day out. “I want to achieve Zero breakdowns in our factory”
  • If the process is reliable we can remove the need for all raw material and finished goods stock. “I want to run our processes with zero stock”
  • “I want to be able to change from product A to product B without stopping the production process”
  • “I want to eliminate all non-value adding waste from our process”

To make a step change in performance, visionary leaders need to set a paradigm shift in thinking as the goal for the business and create a belief that it’s possible. In fact, not only that it’s possible but that there is no plan B. To bring this to reality, they need a change agent who is often described as a “first-follower”.

The first follower is a person who is prepared to follow the leader, to risk their reputation, to stick their neck on the block by demonstrating a commitment to this paradigm shift in thinking. But, by doing this inspire others to follow and achieve the goal.

Watch this video to see more about the role of the first-follower


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