Risk, Failure & Careers in Quality

How many of you have failed recently? Did you fail in your work or in school? If you did, would you admit it? I want to talk about failure because a recent ASQ survey about teenagers and science careers revealed some interesting news.

Nearly all teens agree that risk-taking is required in science, technology, and engineering and math careers (STEM)—but almost half say they are afraid of taking those risks.  Maybe that’s because most of the parents who were surveyed are also uncomfortable with their children failing. You can read the entire survey here.

We know that failing and trying again is key to problem-solving in STEM careers, and certainly in quality. And we know that fewer teens are pursuing STEM fields.

Now, this survey focuses on U.S. teens, so I wonder if students outside the U.S. are taught to be more comfortable with risk-taking, subsequent failure, and, of course, subsequent learning and growth.

And, I want to know how you—the quality professional–handle failure in the workplace. Do you try again until you find a solution? Are you penalized for failure? Or do you avoid it altogether? How much risk are you willing to take to find solutions to quality challenges?

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3 Responses to Risk, Failure & Careers in Quality

  1. Cindy Veenstra says:

    Paul,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. Risk-taking for the next generation of STEM innovators is important. Learning early how to learn from one’s failures is an important process.

    Related is the importance of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking in developing STEM innovators. As you may know, the Education Division’s upcoming June conference, Advancing the STEM Agenda Conference, with Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids MI is hosting an exciting workshop on entrepreneurship, “How to Make Your Entrepreneurial Dreams a Reality. ”

    http://rube.asq.org/public/conferences/stem-agenda-2013/workshop-2.pdf

    One of the workshop’s learning outcomes is to learn the mindset of STEM in sustaining new ideas and inventions. I encourage ASQ members, interested in this topic, to attend this workshop and our conference on advancing the STEM Agenda and contribute to further discussions of innovative thinking in STEM. With this year’s conference theme of Collaboration with Industry on STEM Education, we invite employers, quality professionals, and STEM professionals from industry, and educators to attend.

    For more details on the workshop and conference, see
    http://asq.org/conferences/stem-agenda/index.html

    Cindy Veenstra, ASQ Fellow
    Conference co-chair
    Advancing the STEM Agenda Conference
    conference@asqedu.org

  2. Most of us have been taught to live our lives singularly focused on outcomes. We are a result oriented society. We worship winners and revile losers. With that as the context, is it any wonder that the majority of us are risk averse? Why do something if there is a chance we might not achieve our desired end? Who would want to be labeled a failure or a loser?

    I remember an incident back in middle school. I had got a ‘D’ in one of my classes. It generated such anxiety that I doctored my report card. With a couple of well placed dots penciled in on the dot matrix printout I changed the grade from the ‘D’ to a ‘B’. I knew it was wrong, but the fear of failure was dominating. Even though my parents had never set any expectations for grades – they had always wanted me to just do my best – I had nevertheless internalized the stigma of failure from other social contexts.

    The message we all, student or professional, get every waking moment is clear even if it is just implied: hit the target. It does not matter how. Anything less is not only worthless but it will bring negative consequences. What we fail to grasp is the fact that just as you cannot inspect quality into a product, you cannot test knowledge into a student. Trying to do it just fosters our present culture wherein we are all afraid to take chances and risk failure.

    We must shift our focus upstream to the learning process. We must be taught how to learn beyond just what to learn. All of us have to understand how knowledge is built and then use that process to grow our own knowledge. That process, the learning cycle, is elegantly expressed by Dr. Shewhart and Dr. Deming: PDSA or Plan-Do-Study-Act. Its deceptive simplicity hides the profound impact it has had in growing human knowledge.

    Make a guess at the solution to the problem you’re facing and plan a way to test your guess. Following the plan, actually do the test; carry it out. Study the result by comparing it against your guess. Do they match each other? How you act, depends on the answer. If the result matches your guess, you have confirmation of your guess. If not, you will need to modify your guess with the new found data and run through the cycle once more. Either way, you have increased your knowledge. There is no failure!

    How many cycles it takes to understand the nature of the problem we face depends on how good our initial guess is. We must afford everyone the opportunity to run through as many cycles as they need without judging them as a success or a failure based on the outcome of any given iteration of the cycle. Doing so is a way to kill intrinsic curiosity and stop the learning process cold. If we want people to take risks, then we have to foster an environment of experimentation and cooperation.

    Life is a journey, not a destination. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  3. Hello Paul
    As usual your posed question was challenging.
    It highlights the unique role that Quality holds as interacts between two poles of Risk and Failure on the one side and Innovation and Success on the other, perhaps even creating yet another definition for Quality.

    Visit: http://www.medicallaboratoryquality.com/2013/02/the-risk-quality-innovation-dynamic_11.html

    Michael