CEP: Editorial – Failure to Innovate | AIChE

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CEP: Editorial – Failure to Innovate


A recent Twitter post from Discover magazine, “20 Things You Didn’t Know About … Failure,” caught my attention and got me thinking about failures and mistakes. Curious, I did a bit of research.

I found numerous lists of famous people who failed, some multiple times, and sometimes miserably, before they succeeded at what they are now famous for. Among them: the Beatles, Ludwig van Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, J. K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, to name a few. They picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and started all over again, learning from their mistakes.

Yes, a mistake is an opportunity — to analyze what we did, and figure out what to do differently in the future so we don’t make the same mistake again. But when safety is involved, mistakes could costs lives — and that’s no time for trial-and-error learning. Engineers and plant managers make decisions on a daily basis to balance operational goals, such as efficiency and productivity targets, with process safety objectives. The article “Moving Process Safety into the Board Room” (pp. 43–46) points out that company executives often do not appreciate that some of those decisions involve situations with high safety risks that could have catastrophic consequences. The author, B. Karthikeyan, outlines a method that ensures such high-risk process safety decisions are guided by the organization’s, not the individual’s, risk-tolerance level, and he urges companies to incorporate this approach into their management of change (MOC) programs.

When an incident does occur, it’s important to learn from others’ mistakes. Henry Petroski, a historian of engineering at Duke Univ. and author of the book Success Through Failure, said in an article in The New York Times: “Nobody wants failures. But you also don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.” Several resources for chemical engineers are the article “Lessons Learned from Recent Process Safety Incidents” in the March 2015 issue of CEP (pp. 23–29), and the Global Congress on Process Safety (GCPS), which features sessions devoted to sharing lessons learned (www.aiche.org/gcps).

In other, non-safety-related, areas, we are able to take calculated risks and thus be open to failure. For example: pursuing your passion for research instead of climbing the management ladder; accepting an overseas assignment; following a nontraditional career path (see the YPOV article by Victor Manrique on p. 21); pitching a new process with a long payback period but the potential to earn a high return on investment.

In a survey of executives, managers, and employees from more than 500 companies, the American Management Association (AMA) found that more than one-third of the respondents cite fear of being held responsible for mistakes or failures as the biggest obstacle to encouraging employees to take greater responsibility. “At the heart of improving innovation and productivity is an ability to empower and motivate employees to take thoughtful or well-reasoned risks,” said Sandi Edwards, senior vice president of AMA Enterprise.

Strategy and innovation consultant Matt Hunt adds: “If leaders want employees to fully engage in taking responsibility and driving innovation within the organization, then they have to recognize the ‘necessity of failure’ in the process. And when these failures occur, it is essential that they support those employees who are willing to take on those risks to their career and compensation.”

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