Of course that statement on it’s own can obviously be shown to be fallacy. When you consider the context of continuous improvement, learning or generally advancing our own capabilities and understanding, though, this statement can be quit liberating. Why? Because without failure, you are not learning anything.
Let’s say you are faced with a problem, a challenge, or a need that you are trying to fulfill. If your first attempt and creating a solution is successful you have learned nothing. You already knew how to provide the solution. it only took some thinking to analyze the situation and apply your existing knowledge. If, however, you stretch yourself as far as you can, put every last effort that you currently have into the solution and employ all of your existing knowledge, capabilities and resources but you still fail the first time, fail again and fail some more before finding a solution, then you are learning. You are stepping outside of your own knowledge and capabilities, learning new things and gaining new insight and experience that leads to new solutions for situations that you did not know how to previously solve.
Consider any endeavor to learn, from this light. Whether it’s adopting a new process or methodology such as an agile process or lean toolkit, using a new tool or technology, contributing to an open source project, or learning how to ride a bicycle – having the correct mentality, that failure is required, will undoubtedly help you succeed.
Mike Rother said it quite well in his book, Toyota Kata (p.138-139), when faced with people who are merely capitulating because they were told to do so, or because they want to prove that some change or new way of doing things won’t work:
Eventually it dawned on me how to deal with this question. Now, when arms fold up and people say, “Let’s see if this will work,” I say, “I can save you the time. We already know it probably won’t work. Despite our best efforts to plan this, we know that within a short time there will be ‘charred and glowing pieces’ lying around. We just don’t know in advance when, where, or why it will fail.”
Think about the last time you delivered any fragment of functionality to a customer or customer representative for feedback. Did you expect that they would be 100% satisfied and would accept it as is? Not if you were asking for feedback. When the customer responds with changes or updates that they would like, you have effectively failed. Hopefully you have failed within a very short cycle, though, and are able to incorporate the feedback of the customer into the next delivery or demonstration.
They key is not learning from mistakes and failures. The key is failing fast, failing cheap, and responding to those failures in a timely manner so that you can learn quickly and still reach your objectives. Failure is critical to success and learning, and short feedback cycles are critical to the effective use of failure as a learning tool.