Mastery of Failure – The Key to Success

23 October 2018
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  • Have you failed at anything at any point of time? I have, and I believe most of us, if not all of us, have at some point, failed! However, our failures as people is not we’re talking about here. We’re talking of a different kind of failure and why the mastery of failure is key to success for engineers.

    For the best part, the main focus of engineering has been the pursuit of failure, or rather, how failure occurs. From the simple paper clip to the complex aircraft, the primary requirement is for them to not fail. So, in order to ensure that they do not fail, one must understand how they are likely to fail.

    The most obvious failure is technical failure, where the device does not perform its intended function. This results in anything from a broken paper clip to an air crash! Whilst a broken paper clip can simply be replaced, the downstream consequences of an air crash care often catastrophic.

    The most valuable asset that we must preserve and protect is human life. Broken components and systems can be replaced or fixed, but the human life is irreplaceable. Yes, we talk of reputations and perceived value of organisations, but nothing comes close to the importance of ensuring that people are protected from any and all possible harms.

    So, with human lives in mind, as engineers, our primary pursuit is to understand failure, its mechanisms, its causes, and consequences, and eventually attain mastery of it. Mastery of failure, gives us better control over its effects, and therefore enables us to develop better, more robust and highly functional designs and increases our chances of being able to protect and preserve lives.

    What about non-technical failure? Failures whose consequences are indirect, but still have adverse consequences. In our pursuit of designing against technical failures, we run the risk of over-engineering components, machinery, systems and structures. This results in increased costs of material, manufacturing, resources, transportation & logistics, all of which when put together drive the price up to the point of unaffordability.

    Let’s look at the aircraft. Over-engineering it will result in a heavier aircraft, more robust wing structure, sturdier landing gear, more and sturdier tires, requiring bigger or more number of engines, consuming more fuel. Agreed, that airlines can increase ticket prices, to meet the costs. But then, why would someone want to pay more when something similar is available for less? So, airlines may find the operating costs prohibitive, and therefore not invest in the over-engineered aircraft after all. This is also a failure, albeit not a technical one, but still, a failure!

    Non-technical failures must matter to engineers, simply because, if the technically brilliant devices we design and make aren’t usable due to whatever reason, they will not fulfil their purpose. This is why, mastery of failure, both, technical and non-technical is the key to success. Because, as engineers, it’s important to not just design and make technically sound products, but also to see them used and loved by people, making them a commercial success.

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