Failure is Required for Learning
Failure is Required for Learning
My Honeywell mentor, and now-retiree, Bob Witwer once told me, “We need to invent with intent.” As an organization, our responsibility is to develop products that customers will value and come back for time and time again. As we listen to our customers’ needs and design solutions to their challenges, we need to accept failure as part of the process and use the lessons learned to perfect technology, programs and services moving forward.
When reflecting on my 27 years at Honeywell Aerospace, I’ve certainly had instances where I’ve experienced failure. One project that comes to mind as a valuable learning lesson is the M50 Control Moment Gyroscope (CMG). In the late 1990s, I led a team of about six engineers on the M50 project which included designing an architecture for a low-cost CMG to answer customer demand.
CMGs are not typically known for being affordable. They are high-precision, top-performance products that help control, point and steer satellites in space. It’s technology that does not scream “cheap” but we were trying to broaden our customer base and offer a product to entice companies looking for low-cost options.
After we worked for 18 months to come up with a CMG that fit the low-cost bill, it ended up being a big miss. We realized the product we designed had no “bells and whistles.” In order to keep the cost point low, the M50 had limited functionality and ultimately did not satisfy customers’ needs.
Personally, this failure was frustrating and disheartening. It made me question whether leadership would have confidence to give me another shot at leading a team in the future. My team was disappointed that the product they worked on never had a chance to fly and fell short with industry expectations.
Ultimately, we used this failure to dig deeper and determine what the customer really wanted when they said they were looking for a “low-cost” option. We concluded that what the customer was actually looking for was a better value proposition while maintaining great performance. Our customer was concerned about cost but also needed the CMG to do a complicated job.
The M50 became a great starting point for discussion with customers, something to get them in the door. It allowed us to introduce the value of a CMG and then, if they needed more features than the M50 provided, we could “walk them up” to a more advanced model. By handling it this way, the Honeywell team was able to leverage a low-cost approach while maintaining the high expectations of our customers. The M50 provided us a springboard to introduce customers the M95 - a bigger, better-performing CMG that helped Honeywell bridge the gap between cost and performance.
The M95 is – even today – the highest selling, most requested CMG at Honeywell. Though we failed to sell the M50 to interested customers, it afforded us the opportunity to engage them in meaningful value-based discussions that lead to the selection of the M95.
The short-term failure turned out to be a long-term success for the company. The M50 even earned our team a Technical Achievement award for innovation.
I have worked at Honeywell Aerospace for nearly three decades. In that time, I have seen a lot of successful projects come to fruition and I have seen my share of busts, too. Now, in my role as the Director of Engineering with Electronic Solutions and Space Products, I am proud to lead 500 engineers in four North American sites and three global sites.
As a Director, I try to draw inspiration from Honeywell’s Behaviors including the goal of becoming your best self by seeking and accepting feedback wherever you can get it, deciding what should be changed and then going for it.
When I work with new engineers just embarking on a long career in innovation, I tell them success and failure depends on the way they look at things. I encourage employees to use so-called “failures” to make themselves more valuable for the next assignment and to take experiences – both good and bad – with them to become better-rounded experts on projects ahead. I urge team members to be curious, confident and humble but most importantly, bounce back from disappointments.