Experimentation, Risk Management, and Breakthrough Performance

Joseph Lee
Joseph Lee

Times are tough. The demand has never been greater for regulatory oversight. Public outcry to punish those who failed us has reached the ears of our leaders and politicians.

The dismissal of GM’s chief by the Obama Administration was a shock and a signal to the automotive sector: This is a time in which risk taking will no longer be tolerated. We must learn to play it safe.

Or not.

The Honda Story

Soichiro Honda, was never a man who shied away from taking risks. He said that if it took 99 failures to achieve a result, then those really weren’t failures. Soichiro Honda, of course, was the founder of Honda, a car company that has always found a way to weather the storm.

In the 1970s, Honda wasn’t considered a major player in the auto market, even in Japan. Running out of space to manufacture in its home turf, it took the gamble and became the first Japanese automaker to localize in the U.S.—it built a plant in Ohio. Cited by critics as a company that lacked critical mass, and that could globalize successfully only by adding scale, Honda stayed true to its origins by refusing to add models or lines and focusing on the small and fun cars that made it what it is today. And, by the way, which is the only company that makes cars and also lawn mowers, not to mention airplanes?

Honda’s corporate culture is reflected in its name. We all know it as Honda Motor Company, Ltd., but if you read Japanese, you know that the company’s real name is Honda Giken. Giken is short for Gijutsu Kenkyuu, or Technical Research. In short, Honda is an engineering company. The company’s culture is engineering and the employees love to tinker with engines.

Honda is a company that knows nothing about failure. Everything is about experimentation… trial and error.

Ten years ago, I ran a corporate training event at Honda and its subsidiaries. One of the exercises involved breaking down communication barriers through process improvement. What did we do? We made paper airplanes to see which team could create the one that flew the farthest. In a typical U.S. or Japanese corporate environment, we would expect to see people arguing about design, costs (we made them buy the paper), testing, who would throw the plane, etc. But at Honda, the engineering mind prevailed. They organized themselves and meticulously went through the process of putting together designs that would work, discussing who had skills in relevant areas (interestingly, one gentleman in a team happened to be paper airplane champion in his town when he was a kid).

One of the great things I learn in corporate training is that we really don’t teach people anything as much as we create an environment in which failure is acceptable and acknowledged as part of the learning process.

Honda has produced a wonderful 8-minute short film titled “Failure,” and posted it on their website. I first learned of Honda’s website while sitting in a movie theater waiting for the trailers to start. I watched as Indy racer, Danica Patrick replayed her own experience: “If you’re driving a car, you feel frightened a bit. We bump against that feeling as much as we can, to try and push that limit further, and then get comfortable there… and then push it again, and then you’re constantly on the verge of crashing… because that’s the fastest.”

It is only at “the verge of crashing” that we attain breakthrough performance.

As much as this is a time for restraint and risk management, it is easy to forget how failure has always led to success, and that without the 10,000 light bulbs that didn’t work, Thomas Edison would never have found the one that did.

Joseph Lee is an adjunct professor at the Graziadio School of Business and Management, where he teaches a course on management consulting. Read his blog at joe-lee.com/blog.html

Related in the GBR

Editorial: Is This a Bad Time to be Entrepreneurial? by Nancy Dodd, MPW, MFA

Insights from Keith McFarland, author of The Breakthrough Company by Wayne Strom, PhD

Author of the article
Joseph Lee, Adjunct Professor
Joseph Lee, Adjunct Professor
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