What does it mean to learn from mistakes and failures?

by Arttu Vesterinen


"If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate."
- Thomas J. Watson

One of the most revealing stories how failure rates lead to success is the famous Nozzle problem Unilever faced in its washing powder factory in 1960s. Manufacturing washing powder is not a simple process: it requires boiling a mix of hot chemicals at extremely high pressures through a nozzle. The goal is to have the powder that comes out of the nozzle of same-sized grains. As you might guess, this was not what Unilever was experiencing. Instead the grains were of different sizes and the nozzles kept blocking all the time.


First Nozzle


Image Source: https://www.harveyleach.co.uk/media-training-blog/washing-powder-and-corporate-communications/

Obviously for quality, lost-time and maintenance-cost reasons, this was a critical issue for the company. What they did first was what most people would assume is the best plan: hire the best and brightest, who in this case was mathematicians with a background in fluid dynamics, high-pressure systems, chemical analysis and the physics of phase transition. This team studied the problem inside out and came up with a perfect new design for it. Having a team of such monster resumes, you'd probably assume the problem is not only solved but demolished. But it didn't. It kept blocking.

 "It is failure that guides evolution; perfection provides no incentive for improvement, and nothing is perfect." - Colson Whitehead

What Unilever did next in its desperation, was what's revealing in this story. After firing the team of math geniuses, they contacted a team of biologists who had no prior experience in fluid dynamics nor chemical analysis. But this team had one advantage: they understood evolution, adaptation and the relationship between failure and success.

They started with ten copies of the nozzle, each with slight differences compared to each other, and tested them. And by testing them, they subjected each of them to failure. "Some nozzles were longer, some shorter, some had a bigger or smaller hole, maybe a few grooves on the inside,’ says Steve Jones, former employee of Unilever and one of the most influential evolutionary biologists. "But one of them improved a very small amount on the original, perhaps by just one or two per cent."

Rejecting all other nozzles except the best-performing one, making ten new copies with, again, slight differences of it and repeating the process, the team reached a point of pre-defined success after 45 generations and 449 failures. This is the magic formula of evolution, of adaptation. Fail often, fail fast, fail cheaply.

Successful Nozzle


Image Source: https://www.harveyleach.co.uk/media-training-blog/washing-powder-and-corporate-communications/

What is important to understand is that to identify what is a failure or a mistake, the definition of success must exists as well. For example what has long been the stated goal of health and safety: zero accidents or zero injuries. Or what is typically deemed as excellent customer experience: Net Promoter Score of +50 or more. What makes things more complex is that manytimes the goal is not a static but a moving target. When competitors reveal new products, new technologies emerge or legislation reforms get passed, it means that the environment changes. And so should the definition of success. In the world of VUCA, the environment keeps changing faster than ever before, which translates to an increased demand of failures and mistakes. After all, that's how we keep adapting.

This blog post is the 5th in our VUCA Blog series. For more on this topic, see our previous blog posts: 

VUCA - The Beginning

VUCA: Failure to Adapt Or Adapt to Failure 

Why is VUCA Here To Stay?

Why is VUCA Here To Stay - Part II


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