By Dave Frank

Dave Frank is a 30 year industry veteran and the president of the American Institute for Cleaning Sciences, an independent third-party accreditation organization that establishes standards to improve the professional performance of the cleaning industry.
Everyone fears failure. That’s why people often have the tendency to disassociate themselves from failures, especially in the workplace and in business. Although nobody likes to be identified as the one who messed up, there are very important lessons to be learned from failures of any magnitude. These lessons will help prevent the recurrence of avoidable everyday mistakes (including those that could lead to catastrophes) so businesses can focus on growth and success.

Learning from failure is a process and includes three essential components:
  1. Identification: When learning from failure means putting oneself at risk, many employees steer clear of the opportunity. It is the job of business owners and managers to create an environment in which people have an incentive to identify and reveal failures. Providing a comfortable forum for employees will help them reveal more failures from which lessons can be learned.

    Customers are also a good source for identifying failures. Seeking feedback from customers can expose all kinds of missteps, including communication breakdowns as well as failure to meet goals or satisfy customer requirements.

    Effective identification of failure entails exposing failures as early as possible. This often requires a proactive effort on the part of managers to surface available data on failures and use it in a way that promotes learning.
  2. Analysis: Learning cannot occur unless thoughtful analysis and discussion of failure occurs. Analysis of failure is like a failure autopsy. It helps identify the root cause of the failure and how it could have been prevented. Often, failure patterns will be identified.

    Analysis and discussion of failures is challenging because people prefer to put past mistakes behind them rather than revisit and share them with others. It is up to managers to provide formal processes or forums in which employees can be comfortable. Also, the use of expert facilitators can help prevent discussions from getting personal and help keep them productive.

    Discussions should include managers and employees who weren’t originally involved in the failure so they have the opportunity to learn from it. These employees also may bring new perspectives and insights to the analysis because they aren’t emotionally tied to the mistake.
  3. Experimentation: This step is all about creating failures for the sole purpose of learning. It means trying new things to find out what works and what doesn’t.

    This is not to say that managers should encourage people to make mistakes but rather to acknowledge that failures are inevitable.The best thing to do is to learn from them as much as possible — especially from small ones so larger ones are less likely.

Only after a real crisis is active learning from failure common. At that point, the learning comes along too late to prevent serious harm. By focusing first on small failures, business owners can minimize the threatening nature of failure to gain experience and momentum in the learning process.