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The Key to Success: Learning from Failures

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Titanic, Challenger, Columbia, NASA, BP, Toyota, crisis, disaster, research, University of Portsmouth, failure

What’s common to NASA’s Challenger and Columbia disasters, Toyota’s recall crisis in 2010 and the sinking of the Titanic? All of them could have been avoided if the companies had learnt from previous failures, according to new research published in Elsevier’s journal Safety Science.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth, in the UK, have studied a series of reported disasters to answer some key questions about the performance of companies and institutions: “Why do failures happen? Are organizations really learning from failures? And in the context of a failure, how is learning realized?”

Analyzing some incidents occurred among companies such as NASA, BP and Toyota, the authors of the study have concluded that these disasters are caused by an “inflated degree of confidence”, and that “organizations learn more effectively from failures than from successes.”

“A lack of failure can lead to over-confidence and ‘blindness’ to the possibility of problems,” said Prof Ashraf Labib, co-author of the study. “Some managers and organizations see their role as akin to re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, but disasters, when you study them, are often built on futile exercises that don’t help avoid problems.”

The study presents 10 generic lessons that “can help organizations, and managers, to understand reasons for failures.” These lessons are:

  • Too much belief in previous successes
  • Coping with growth
  • Misconception of fashionable paradigms (“Misconception of paradigms has always been a dangerous affair. Organizations, in an attempt to identify and minimise waste, might cross the line and end up unknowingly sacrificing safety”)
  • Legislations
  • The “I operate, You fix” attitude (Refers to the belief that “maintenance is the responsibility of the maintenance department and operators should deal only with the operation of their own machines”)
  • No news is good news (“Implies a passive attitude towards performing any prevention activity, a wait-and-see situation”)
  • Bad news bad person (“Someone who brings bad news about the malfunction, or even the expectation of it, is considered an under-performer”)
  • Everyone’s own machine is the highest priority to him (“The lack of a systematic and consistent approach to setting priorities tends to be an important feature when dealing with a disaster”)
  • Solving a crisis is a forgotten experience
  • Skill levels dilemma (“In the maintenance function, the designer of the machine is not usually the one who fixes it, and surprisingly, might not even have the ability to do so. In a crisis, the issue of skill levels needed is a major dilemma”)

In order to learn more about these tools and the author’s conclusions, check the paper at the link provided below.

Source: Belfast Telegraph, ScienceDirect-Safety Science

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Labib, A., & Read, M. (2013). Not just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic: Learning from failures through Risk and Reliability Analysis Safety Science, 51 (1), 397-413 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssci.2012.08.014

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