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Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

Posted October 23, 2007 1:40 PM by Consultgene

Quick: What was the name of the bridge that collapsed this summer in the Midwest?

If five seconds have passed, face it: you don't remember that it was called the eye thirty-five double u bridge. How quick we forget such major news (I didn't remember either).

The eight-lane, 1,907 feet (581 m) steel truss arch bridge spanned the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, according to Wikipedia. Completed in 1967 and maintained by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the bridge was that state's fifth–busiest, carrying some 140,000 vehicles daily. Tragically, 13 people died and more than 100 were injured.

Why the bridge failed is still being sorted out by the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB). Bridge failures, of course, happen more often than we'd like (like never…). According to Henry Petroski, author of Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design (Princeton University Press, 2006, 240 pages), there's a major bridge disaster every 30 years, at least since 1847. Was the Minneapolis Bridge part of this 30-year curse? If so, it's off by eight years (or ahead by 22 years). My point is Success…is worth reading. Petroski is a good communicator because he engages his readers; he gets us to think.

His landscape of failures, however, is much wider than collapsed bridges. From the initial failed Aleve cap in 1994 to the collapse of the World Trade Center, Petroski parses the many failures that have occurred in products, structures, even Microsoft Word's Powerpoint presentation software. Author of three other books, Duke Professor Petroski challenges those of us in business, government or academia to learn from failure. In our earnings-driven (read short-term) society especially, failures are like the family's proverbial "dirty laundry," hidden and never to be talked about. The author pays homage to, "…the inventors, the engineers, the designers of the world…to these intrepid pioneers, a failure of any kind is not so much a disappointment as an opportunity."

Petroski cleverly counters our world of constant change with certain maxims that will comfort or at least make you think: "There are two approaches to any engineering or design problem: success-based and failure-based. Paradoxically the latter is always far more likely to succeed."

Think about your most recent failures. What did you learn?

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#1

Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/24/2007 6:44 AM

"Petroski cleverly counters our world of constant change with certain maxims that will comfort or at least make you think: "There are two approaches to any engineering or design problem: success-based and failure-based. Paradoxically the latter is always far more likely to succeed."

What waffle! One designer's success is possibly someone elses failure waiting to happen.

Where's the paradox? A failure provides additional data (when it fails) that can be useful to future design efforts - but that doesn't make it ok.

Track failures back far enough, and usually cost-cutting is the source of the trouble.

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/24/2007 4:05 PM

You're probably right about the cost cutting! Thanks for your comments.

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#3
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Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/24/2007 8:27 PM

In other words: It wasn't "bad engineering", it was a lack of proper maintenance, caused by political stupidity, and short sightedness.

I agree.

Design me a bridge to last 20 years. OK (but everyone on this site, including me would design for more - don't look at me in that tone of voice, it's true and you know it.). Then 30 years later, while nothing has been done to replace the bridge, the politico's point the finger at the original engineer. @##@#@%&^

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Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/26/2007 5:29 AM

This supports my philosophy of 'Wrong as quick as possible' WAQAP , as opposed to 'right first time' RFT.

Anyone wanting a copy of my 'didn't sell at all' book 'WAQUAP how to fail quickly' should send me $30 in used notes asap.

Del

(Note this isn't entirely flippant as anyone who is an avid follower of my wit and wisdom will now I have espoused this philosophy for some time...)

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#5

Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/26/2007 9:39 AM

Thanks for contributing this book review, Consultgene. We can only learn from failure if we are willing to take the time to absorb its lessons. That may sound trite, but it's a fast-paced world where passing the buck can be a standard operating procedure. If we do have 30 years until the next bridge failure, let's hope that attention spans are long enough to learn the lessons of the I-35 bridge collapse.

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#6
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Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/26/2007 10:48 AM

Thanks for your kind words. You said it right - it's all about learning the lesson, growing from mistakes, etc. If post mortems are done everyday on dead bodies, why does Corporate America have such a hard time doing them on projects that failed?

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Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/26/2007 11:11 AM

"If post mortems are done everyday on dead bodies, why does Corporate America have such a hard time doing them on projects that failed?"

Perhaps, while Corporate America is happy to shout from the rooftops about its "can do" approach, it has not yet learnt how to come to terms with, and manage properly, failure. Alternatively and more harshly, is it possible that Corporate America simply does not care?

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Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/26/2007 4:44 PM

I believe they do care...it has to do with discipline-making it a part of the performance management process (not to get too HRy...)The ultimate benefit, of course, is not "mea culpa," but what can we learn so we don't do it again or do it differently. Your earlier comment about cost rings especially true here; many failures are due to lack of funding--doing it right--because,of course funds are limited. That's where discipline comes in: "We will fund only the best ideas, programs, etc. that contribute to value, including shareholder value," instead of trying to please the squeaky wheels. The shame associated with failure also has to be exorcised:we emphasize looking good too much and banishing failed managers...risk then becomes something to avoid and when that happens, mediocrity is sure to set in....

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Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/28/2007 3:18 PM

If we accept that there is often a problem of insufficient funding, influencing the quality of design, construction and/or maintenance of structures and which may arise from, for example, competing projects or changing economic conditions, then surely it would be sensible to attach compulsory periodic review conditions to compare conditions of use over time with the original specifications. However, I do get the impression that some might argue that there are not even enough funds (or maybe the willingness) to enforce regular checks, let alone over-engineer designs in anticipation of future conditions.


Certainly there should be no shame attached where there is unexpected failure that reasonably could not have been predicted/prevented. Unfortunately, if there is no will to find additional funding for "flagship" projects then mediocrity of design to ensure safety would indeed be the rule.

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#9

Re: Worth Reading: "Success Through Failure"

10/27/2007 12:59 PM

Anything in the outside world is subject to the enviroment. Things need to be protected, inspected and preventive maintenance is a must. However: Who would have thought 75 years ago, when our bridge leading to my home over a resevoir, would have double 53 foot tandem tractor trailers fully loaded traveling over it. The original bridge was replaced and the old one turned into a park walk with benches, planters and old fashioned lighting.

engineers must look at the past and present, and design for the future.

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