Times are tough. The demand has never been greater for regulatory oversight. Public outcry to punish those who had failed us has reached the floors of our leaders and politicians. The automotive sector was shocked as GM’s chef was dismissed by the Obama Administration. This is a time in which risk taking will no longer be tolerated. We must learn to play it safe.
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 always finds 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—to build a plant in Ohio. Cited by critics as a company that lacked critical mass, and that the only way to successfully globalize was to add scale, Honda stayed true to its origins, refusing to add models or lines, focusing on the small and fun cars that made it what it is today. And who’s the only company that makes cars and also lawn mowers, not to mention an airplane?
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, it is an engineering company. The company’s culture is engineering. The employees love to tinker with engines. This 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 communications barriers through process improvement. What did we do? We made paper airplanes to see which team can create the one that flew the farthest. In a typical US 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 the designs that would work, discussed who had skills in relevant areas (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 a wonderful 8-minute short film titled “Failure” on its web-site: http://dreams.honda.com/#/video_fa. I first learned of the site while sitting in a movie theater waiting for the trailers to start. I watched as Indy racer, Danica Patrick replayed her own experience, saying, “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 independent consultant and executive coach. He is also an Adjunct Professor at both the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management where he teaches second-year MBA courses in Management Consulting. In addition, Mr. Lee is also an author, writing International Business Thrillers, including his debut novel The Sky Burns Red (赤く燃える空) which was published in Japan. A sequel is scheduled to be released fall, 2009.