Valuable Data from Failure

I recently finished up my Six Sigma Green Belt certification for my day job. There are aspects to the methodology that I really got into and other parts I felt were overly process oriented.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing the Voice of the Customer portion of the project. This is where you survey your end users and find out what they need. I prepared the questions and sent them out and received back a very good percentage of responses. At this point the fun really started for me. I analyzed the responses in a myriad of ways and I purposefully set up questions to reflect different prerogatives of the customer. When I compared the responses against each other it was really revealing. Our objective was much more clear – data doesn’t lie.

I read a piece in wired magazine this month called Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer that fascinated me (there are other segments to this theme in the magazine as well). Recently I had a minor failure in my professional life. I put myself out there and didn’t get a positive outcome. But I’ve taken the live and learn attitude from it and am better off for the experience. So when I saw this article it pulled me in.

The emphasis of the writing is mostly on how scientist deal with results of experiments that produce data that contradicts the hypothesis. Here are a few excerpts I really liked:

“These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”

How did the researchers cope with all this unexpected data? How did they deal with so much failure? Dunbar realized that the vast majority of people in the lab followed the same basic strategy. First, they would blame the method. The surprising finding was classified as a mere mistake; perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale.“The scientists were trying to explain away what they didn’t understand,” Dunbar says. “It’s as if they didn’t want to believe it.”

Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories.

There is also an explanation of two areas of the brain that play a part in understanding the world. One area, located in the center of the brain, is called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and it is the part of the brain that comprehends things that are against preconceived notions, such as the uniform pull of gravity despite weight. The other is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) which focuses the mind by filtering out stimulus that isn’t worthwhile (there is so much information coming in through the senses), but in doing so it can obscure minute differences. We start to use this mechanism as a shortcut, installing assumptions – that work 90% of the time – to close the gap in how we understand the world.

The article goes on to talk about the value of working on the margin; outside the establishment. This is useful for several reasons, but one is that questions are asked that aren’t usually. The reason is that assumptions have turned into an institutional echo chamber. People like Albert Einstein did their breakthrough work away from the centers of thought leadership. This environment makes people with alternative ideas explain their concepts to people who aren’t knowledgeable of the subject. This process acts as a test, which can either help the thinking through process or clarify the error in the method. Either way, it’s valuable to talk to people who are going to challenge the idea. As the article puts it:

This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”

What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake. Bob Dylan, in other words, was right: There’s no success quite like failure.

And here is where my own experience kicks in some as well. I had thoughts on how the six sigma project should proceed, but I allowed the data from the Voice of the Customer to point me. I had my answers to the questions, but I kept a blank slate in my head to not cloud my judgment. I anticipated my answers were imperfect and that type of approach, cerebral rather than visceral, kept me humble enough to consider alternate realities. But when the time came to run with it, I did. As Bob Dylan said, There’s no success quite like failure. Live and Learn.


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