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  • Writer's pictureRichard Bistrong

What can compliance learn from industrial failures?

This article initially appeared on The FCPA Blog, here and is reposted with the permission from the editor and publisher.

I recently had the opportunity to tour three manufacturing facilities in Europe — for aircraft, pharmaceuticals, and watches. While those might seem to have little in common, I found one strong common thread among them: the passion and precision of those individuals and teams who work at each site.

I watched a wing being fused to a fuselage, a pill receiving its final coating, and saw someone hand painting the enamel face of a watch, a “decorative technique forgotten and mastered only by a handful of craftsmen” (quoted from the brand website for those who like watches!).

And what came through when I spoke to people at each site was not only the precision of their work, but the passion of being part of something greater, fulfilling the organization’s values and mission through each and every task at hand.

While going through the protocol to enter the sterile environment of the pharmaceutical factory, I made a mistake in getting prepared, and the site manager (who was kind and friendly throughout) brought me to the start of the process again.

My mistake got me thinking about speaking up and failure, a topic I’ve also encountered in Amy Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization, and in her recently released Right Kind of Wrong, The Science of Failing Well.

During my factory tours, it became clear in each organization that speaking up was not only encouraged, but honored and respected. One organization even designates days and times where personnel have the opportunity to share what they thought were processes that could be improved, including mistakes they made, and how speaking up quickly allowed the mistakes to be corrected.

Amy Edmondson calls those “intelligent failures.” They provide “valuable new knowledge,” as well as “sparking” trust, authenticity, and accountability, as I heard her explain at the Thinkers50 conference in London.

These dynamics might seem a natural part of operational DNA. After all, manufacturing failures in aircraft, pharmaceuticals, and even timepieces (some used in hardware where precision is crucial) can be catastrophic, so having a “safe environment” would seem to be mission-critical. But even outside manufacturing “safe environments,” shouldn’t we think about ethics and compliance programs and initiatives with that same “safety first” mindset?

Many organizations that I work with have done exactly that, and with great success. They took the operational “safety is not for compromise” mentality, which might have been developed in the context of industrial operations, for example, and rolled it out to the entire workforce, calibrated to specific roles and challenges.

After all, why shouldn’t someone in sales order processing feel that same sense of pride and passion as someone who is fastening seats to the floor of an aircraft, and adopt that same mindset of how “doing what’s right” is an integral part of personal and professional values.

So, how can we ensure that same sense of passion and purpose throughout the enterprise?

Amy Edmondson’s work on failure gives us a great start. All of us are fallible, she teaches, and if that realization is used constructively, failures can help us “craft a fulfilling life full of never-ending learning.”

The tough part is that most of us feel ashamed of our failures. We’re more likely to hide them than to learn from them. That’s a slippery slope that’s very relatable when thinking about my own journey.

It doesn’t sound intuitive to think about ethics and compliance as a “let’s celebrate failure” enterprise, but that’s exactly what I experienced in those factories, and I’m grateful to all my hosts for truly expanding my thinking on this subject.

So, how about your organization? Does it use “intelligent failures” to gain knowledge by encouraging everyone “to be honest about a small thing before it snowballs into a larger failure.”


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