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When "Failure is Not an Option"

This declaration has two contexts. The one where is it a motivational motto for military men to take the hill and for football players to break through the defense and make the touchdown, it is a truly inspiring war cry. The phrase has a nobler genesis with Gene Franz, Mission Director for the Apollo moon missions in the 1960s after Jim Lovell issued his understated but undying words, "Houston, we have a problem." But the other context leads to the Principle of Imminent Collapse. Where failure is declared to not be an option, there is and need to bury the truth about a manifest failure and to sequester the bearer of the bad news. In the Roman times, the messenger of bad news was killed, not because the recipient was angry, but because he did not want that bad news being leaked to the troops or enemy. The messenger might have become aware of the nature of his message and passed it along out of the chain of command that is essential in a military context.

Many corporate leaders have picked up on the value of those immortal words but diminish them by their invocation for less than worthy circumstances. All too often, a zealous manager or executive uses "failure is not an option" as a shield to protect his turf and to advertise that his enterprise is doing everything possible to succeed. He is trying to convince himself and his contemporaries and detractors alike that everything was being done to succeed.

A colleague, Joyce Callahan, approached me one day with a sign that she had made up on her computer that said, "If Failure is Not an Option… How Can We Learn From Our Mistakes?" It was then that I understood the imminent collapse context of that famous phrase. No body wants to admit a mistake. Mistakes make us look bad and makes the people around us look bad. Many times, we don't get the opportunity to remain in a job after a particularly unpopular decision or action that resulted in a huge embarrassment or public outrage. Refer to Marv Alpert on page 102.

Unless a person is so incorrigible that he refuses to learn from mistakes, the best person to fill a position is one who has already been through the mill on a particular situation. I would trust a person who got caught up in a mistake not to do it again over one who had never experienced that situation. Dishonest people are yet another aspect of that scenario. Trying to decide which type a particular person is, is the essential task at hand.

The human heart is one of those organs that benefits from small incomplete blood flow blockages. After a series of not lethal blockages, the circulation paths become redundant thereby saving the person from a much more serious heart attack later in life. The younger a person is when the first heart attack happens, the more likely that person is to die from that attack. Count those initial partial blockages as "mistakes" and one can see that we can "learn" from them.

But when failure is not an option in the second context, one cannot admit to the failure and therefore gains no beneficial results from it. Resources must be diverted to covering up the failure and assuring that the news doesn't get out. Deceit becomes institutionalized. Stress levels increase. Productivity wanes.

Commanding results and declaring failure to not be an option is the hallmark of an enterprise in crisis. It is one about to meet at a crossroad with the Principle of Imminent Collapse. When the Apollo mission was in jeopardy and Gene Kranz announced that failure was not an option, he also marshaled every available resource and set them to the task of solving the problem. The mission was no longer to get to the Moon, but to get home safely.

In my travels to numerous cities to meet with public transportation managers and operations, I hear a lot of comments from drivers and mechanics, dispatchers and supervisors, that relate to this concept of failure not being an option. In one focus group of bus drivers, they related the scenario that when they already had a standing room only crowd on the bus and there was a customer waiting to board who is sitting in a wheelchair, they are regularly told by the radio dispatcher to get that person on the bus even if they have to get everyone off first to accomplish that boarding. Failure is declared not an option. This is crisis mode. There is no Plan B. Not having a Plan B also leads to the Principle of Imminent Collapse.

Bus drivers are regularly instructed to use the bus that is assigned to them irrespective of whether that vehicle is appropriate to the route, works correctly, or will ultimately be able to complete the run without a breakdown. Crisis mode. Get the vehicle out there now and solve the breakdown later. Failure to make a full schedule rollout is not an option.

Many years ago the Soviet method of industrial production was explained to me as such. Theirs was a command economy. A Central Committee directive said that the People need a production level of 1,000 refrigerators per month from a particular plant, and failure was not an option. Heads could literally roll if 1,000 units did not ship each month. So a truck breaks down while delivering compressors to the plant and only 900 compressors actually get delivered that month. The measure of performance is the commanded shipment of 1,000 refrigerators, so 1,000 units are actually shipped. Failure was averted. But what of the 100 compressor deficit? 900 refrigerators are shipped that actually work and 100 that don't. They get "fixed" in the post-sale period after the customer calls that the refrigerator is broken already. No failures. At least none that anyone is willing to talk about. This leads to the periodic after-market remedies that must be performed every time a truck load of compressors doesn't arrive on time. No one is ever held accountable for the delivery of compressors, because no one ever lets the Central Committee know about it; because failures don't happen.

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