Talk to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and the idea of “fail fast, fail early, and fail often” will likely come up within the first five minutes of conversation. In some circles, you're not considered successful until you have several failures under your belt.
The same philosophy has merit for any startup company trying to make its way in the world or looking to carve out a niche in the always-changing innovation landscape. In my mind, it also saddles up to another idea I love: design thinking — “the human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people and organizations become more innovative and creative,” as IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown writes. (I'm re-reading sections of Brown's book, Change by Design , so while my body is physically in Barcelona, my head is very much spinning around things that have a distinctive Bay Area feel.)
However, I'm struggling to understand how this is working in reality among electronics companies that have thousands of global employees, hundreds and hundreds of suppliers, and costly and complex worldwide supply chain operations. How is “fail fast, early, and often” changing the sector and the way people in high tech think of innovation?
I'm sure the vernacular has steered its way into meeting rooms at electronics and technology companies, given the obvious California connection and their dynamic startup natures. I can see, too, that it would complement the notions of flexibility, responsiveness, and agility — the golden eggs of supply chain management today.
The flip side strikes me just as hard. A “fail fast” strategy appears to be counter-intuitive to the complex trading partner relationships dependent on a somewhat predictable (or at least, mostly reliable) well-oiled supply chain processes and practices. How could “fail fast” not directly impact status-quo design and supply chain innovation? Doesn't it reset the standards for designing, developing, and delivering products to market — standards that are hard to keep pace with in the face of fickle consumer reactions and the need for efficient cost management?
This is on other people's minds as well.
A while back, The Washington Post ran a column on this topic, and its author, Dominic Basulto, said, “Embracing failure must be more than corporate jargon. It must be built into the very DNA of a company.” OK, it should become part of a company's DNA, but how does a company go about doing that?
Wired posted something recently about how “fail fast” is impacting innovation, particularly from a product design and research perspective. Writer Erika Hall raises a good point:
Maybe knocking out a prototype or building a company is the fastest, cheapest way to learn. But often it's not. Sure, a prototype can tell us if the user understands the potential solution — but if it's solving a problem no one has, why bother building it in the first place?
The organization is better off finding some people who are the type they'd expect to have the problem, watching how they actually behave, asking what prompts them to behave that way, and learning how the user solves that problem currently.
Over in Asia, corporate and government leaders in Thailand are looking for ways to shift its low-cost manufacturing profile towards more innovative, higher-value design and supply chain opportunities. The country hopes to do that by applying strategies rooted in Silicon Valley, as reported by the Bangkok Post here:
The new challenges are: how do we build organisations that are as nimble as change itself? How do we mobilise and monetise the imagination of every employee, every day? How do we create organisations that are highly innovative places to work? These challenges can't be met without reinventing the 100-year-old management model.
It seems the “fail fast” conversation is gaining considerable international momentum, but I would like to see an example of how this has applied specifically to a common supply chain problem people gripe about.
How is your company marrying the idea of creative and innovative problem solving with the practical need of efficiently moving parts around the world? What's the best high-tech “fail fast” example you've seen lately?