Editor's Page

Dec. 21, 2004
Do it wrong the first time

One of the central tenets of quality doctrine is this simple admonition: Do it right the first time. Make it right the first time, and you eliminate waste. Finish it right the first time, and you save money, time, and customer relationships. Everybody agrees with that, right? Well, almost everybody. I met a CEO recently who disagrees completely. In fact, this CEO is trying to ban the phrase and its impact from his company entirely. Is it because he doesn't believe in quality? No. Is it because he likes wasting money and time, or annoying customers? No. Is it because he wants to fail? In a word, yes. In fact, this CEO says that neither he nor his company fails often enough. Why? Because, explains this CEO, the quality ethic and its mantra of Do it right the first time has become so pervasive in companies today -- especially manufacturing companies -- that it has begun to stifle creativity and risk-taking. According to this CEO, unchecked Do-it-right-the-first-time-ism can create an environment intolerant of failure. And when employees are afraid of making mistakes, he says, they try only those improvements -- in processes, in products -- that they're sure will work. Perversely, then, Do it right the first time may lead to good quality numbers, but it also can create a "quality" atmosphere that generates only incremental improvements. The problem, of course, is that breakthrough innovation -- whether in products or processes or employee relations or customer service -- is rarely a well-planned, orderly, mistake-free process. Inventors from Archimedes to Thomas Edison have demonstrated the wisdom of Do it wrong the first time (or the first thousand times). To their minds, mistakes and blind alleys and wrong turns on the way to a breakthrough were indispensable components of the scientific process, not violations of a rigid quality ethic. In fact, Edison turned the definition of failure on its head when he said: "Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure." My CEO acquaintance wants plenty of failed experiments -- but no failed (i.e., satisfied) employees. Stellar quality numbers may make you feel successful in the short term, he says, but without a batch of mistakes -- big and little -- along the way, you're probably not failing enough to succeed in the long run. You won't improve your processes enough because your employees won't attempt what seems impossible. You won't reinvent your products enough because your employees won't risk a failed launch. And you won't delight your customers enough because while your employees focus on improving current levels of client satisfaction, your competitors will be inventing completely new ways to satisfy customers that will make you obsolete. Do it right the first time isn't nearly as important as Do it best. And Do it best always means Do it wrong, at least for a while. What's your next big mistake? Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected].

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