Brownian Motion...

The random musings of a Fluid Dynamicist

Why Failure IS an Option!

My favourite quote, from my favourite movie, comes from Ron Howard’s 1993 docu-drama “Apollo 13”.

As Gene Kranz (wonderfully played by the actor Ed Harris) addresses a crowd of NASA engineers and flight controllers he implores them to find a way of bringing the crew of the recently crippled spacecraft safely home:

“We’re gonna have to figure it out. I want people in our simulators working re-entry scenarios. I want you guys to find every engineer who designed, every switch, every circuit, every transistor and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy in the assembly line who had actually built the thing. I want this mark all the way back to Earth with time to spare. We never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option!“ Gene Kranz – NASA Flight Director

Gene Kranz is one of my heroes, and the Apollo 13 story is one of the greatest stories of engineering triumphing over adversity. I once had the pleasure of meeting Kranz at a conference and hearing him speak. In real life, he is every bit as inspiring as his movie caricature.

However, as a middle-aged engineer, I respectfully disagree with him on the “failure is not an option” thing. In my life and my career, repeated failure is a necessary condition for eventual success.

Put simply, if failure is not an option, then neither is success.

Failure is the very fabric of innovation; it’s what success is made from. At its heart engineering is a process of continual improvement. Engineers take existing things and try to make them better, usually by making a series of incremental changes, each intended to make a product somehow “better”: faster; stronger; lighter; more efficient; less expensive. Every successful product results from many design iterations, each of which gradually improves the product’s performance in some manner.

The problem is that for every successfully implemented design improvement, there are many more “failed iterations”. Those that either delivered no improvement in product performance or somehow made it worse. For every hard-won improvement in product performance, there is an almost infinite number of ways to break it. Predicting which changes will improve a product, and which will diminish it, is the art of engineering; we have to identify poorly performing design choices so that we can eliminate them. Often the lessons that are learned from early failures influence the whole future design direction of the project.

In the good old days of engineering, this process of improvement through repeated failure was almost entirely dependent on the (sometimes destructive) testing of physical prototypes in a process that was often described as “design, build, test, repeat”. Because those prototypes were expensive and only available late in the design process, opportunities for failure (and therefore innovation) were severely limited.

We are very fortunate to be part of a generation of engineers that can deploy accurate simulation and enormous computing power, to tell us which design changes work, and which design changes fails, across hundreds or even thousands of possible design iterations.

Of course, I’m being unfair to Gene Kranz. He understands more than anyone that success is dependent on learning from your failures. Kranz’s first mission as NASA Flight Director was the ill-fated Mecury-Redstone1 launch that rose a total of four inches in the air before exploding in mid-air. He credits the disaster that tragically claimed the lives of three American astronauts on Apollo 1 as the most significant event of the Apollo program: “It was perhaps the defining moment in our race to get to the moon. The ultimate success of Apollo was made possible by the sacrifices of Grissom, White, and Chaffee. The accident profoundly affected everyone in the program.”

Consumers imagine that beautifully designed products are conceived fully formed from the mind of a brilliant designer without recognising that all products evolve through multiple failures.

As engineers, we rightly take lots of pride in our successes, but I think that we all need to spend more time recognising the amount of “grunt work” that goes into designing beautifully engineered products. But we need to talk more about failure.

Rather than adopting the macho “Failure is not an option” approach, I think that the engineers need to be more honest about their failures and adopt the following mantra:

“Fail early. Fail often. Learn from your mistakes and share them with others.”

Fail early. Fail often. Learn from your mistakes and share them with others.”