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1/1/1997 | 9 MINUTE READ

Great and Brilliant Failures

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Case studies about the wonderful benefits of screw-ups...


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"The key reason the U.S. economy is more successful than the Soviet economy is the United States allows more business failure," stated George Gilder in his book The Spirit of Enterprise.

His comment capsulizes the significance of failure with respect to success and aggregate economies. As a consequence, unless significant failure is allowed and encouraged, the likelihood of extraordinary success will be severely limited.

Bill Smithberg of Quaker Oats makes a great analogy, "Business is like skiing. If you are not falling down, you are not learning." Over the past decade competition has increased dramatically, and we have to look toward and learn from those on the Pacific Rim and Japan in particular. Industrialist Soichiro Honda's introspective comments are quite relevant, "Many people dream of success. To me, success can be achieved only through repeated failure and introspection." An atmosphere of acceptable failure is inevitably and positively linked to success.

These admitted over-achievers point out the need and importance of failure; and perhaps as importantrepeated failures. Some beneficial accomplishments are the result of what was initially thought to be a failure.

Risk taking and failure are essential and characteristic of leading companies. Not taking a risk or exposing oneself to failure is perhaps the ultimate business and personal faux pas. Using the results of failure as a foundation will likely lead to progress and eventual success. Leading companies such as DuPont and 3M have been known for their innovations and ability to bring new and exciting products to market. The failure of an experimental adhesive to "really stick" well became the Post-it™ note, which developed into a major market. Teflon® and its lubricity characteristics were an accident of the space program that led DuPont, along with the Gnome of Zurich who named the product, to a whole family of consumer products and industrial applications.

How to handle failure? (Or what did Hewlett-Packard learn from INTEL's debacle in handling the defective Pentium® Chip?)

Recently, INTEL's handling of a defective characteristic in its Pentium Processor received much attention and significant negative notoriety. After internal engineers discovered that the chip was defective, it was not dealt with at the customer level until a mathematics professor at a small East Coast college pointed out the problem. Only at that point was a program introduced. If the customer could justify to INTEL that it needed to have that defective processing capability corrected, INTEL would "consider" replacing the Pentium chip. The outcry from the computer community was loud and clear! Over the Internet, in academia and business the failures of the Andy Grow (chairman INTEL) School of Marketing became a lesson for all of us.

However, it was not until IBM stopped shipments of all its Pentium-based computers that INTEL got the message (finally). What were the consequences of this initial insensitivity? Public letters of apology from INTEL throughout the media, including The Wall Street Journal; stockholder disgust; and an 800 number to face outraged customers. Having a defective product is one thing; failure to address the important issue of customer satisfaction and credibility is quite another.

We can learn from the failure of others too. Are INTEL and the industry better for this failure? Look at INTEL's stock price and more vigorous competition from Power PC, Cyrix, AMD and others. INTEL goofed but learned quite quickly. Rapid learning is essential in an industry whose product half life is less than twelve months.

What was learned? The market place reaction was swift and severe. Quality and supportive service must be attended to without minimizing responsibility for what was done. Rejection always presents an opportunity to get closer to the customer.

This INTEL example was in sharp contrast to Hewlett-Packard, who only a few months later discovered a problem in their Inkjet series of printers. The company immediately established an 800 number that registered owners could call and arrange to have a new printer shipped. There was no fuss or questions, just responsiveness. This was done without undo fanfare or hoopla and demonstrated true responsiveness to a failure in a positive way.

Let's look at some cases in the metal finishing industry and then some in electroless nickel.

The case of the rubber mold that would not reopen. Back in the 70's the benefits of electroless nickel were initially promoted through literature and the first Electroless Nickel Conference. A proliferation of articles and research flooded the industry. The positive aspects of the coating, including uniform coverage, high lubricity and excellent corrosion resistance were expounded. A toy manufacturer thought this coating would be great for toy molds, in particular for little rubber tires. Dutifully the engineers designed and built a mold for making tires for model vehicles. The rubber was injected and set. The mold hydraulics were engaged and the effort to open the mold began. Again, again, again, not much happened.

What was discovered, was that electroless nickel bonded with the sulfur and the complex agents of the rubber to generate one of the strongest adhesive bonds that had been seen. Even though the benefits of lubricity were not achieved, the greater benefit of the reactive characteristics of electroless nickel with rubber became apparent. The success of rubber bonding was most beneficial and reinforced the need for proper testing, experimentation and, yes, failure.

Fish eyes are not necessarily what you see. A major electroless nickel plater was coating large rollers for the printing industry and noticed what appeared to be "fish eyes" or pits in the nickel finish. The pits were somewhat of a surprise and were first thought to be defects in the raw substrate. Of even greater surprise was that there were no pits evident in the base material. Thus, it would seem that the problem was in the coating itself. Upon closer examination of the fish eyes, there appeared to be small balls within the defective area. Where in the world did they come from? After extensive research it was determined that these particles were actually from the deionized (DI) water system. Even though the input water to the DI was filtered, the output was not; hence, the electroless nickel bath after the DI process actually contained the resin/medium from the DI generating water system.

The failure of parts resulted in identifying a major source of contamination of the electroless nickel bath and pointed out the need to look beyond just surface solutions.

What do you mean there is no nickel under the chrome coating? Electroless nickel has a multitude of benefits that have successfully been coupled with that of other metals. Electroless nickel underneath hard chrome offers a marvelous matrix of outstanding characteristics.

The electroless nickel/hard chrome configuration was specified by a firm making small hydraulic cylinders. One firm applied the electroless nickel and another hard chrome plated the pieces. However, the expertise of the hard chrome platers was a bit naïve. Hard chrome on steel is traditionally cleaned by reversing the current within the chrome bath. This is in contrast to the traditional multi-staged alkaline and acid cleaning process.

What happened? The parts were cleaned and plated with a high-phosphorous electroless nickel. The hard chrome plater got the part and cleaned it in his traditional way, that is, reversing the current while in the hard chrome bath. The part was then plated with the hard chrome and shipped to the hydraulic firm. After incoming inspection, the customer notified the plater that there was no electroless nickel underneath the hard chrome.

Bewilderment set in, since the head of the electroless nickel plating company had witnessed the plating process. It was then learned that reversing current in the hard chrome would not only remove impurities from the steel, but the electroless nickel as well. The process does not help the hard chrome bath much but does offer an electrolytic method of removing electroless nickel.

Why does plating react differently on the same part? A major fluid-control firm had actuators that were part of a solenoid valve. These valves were experiencing rusting problems in the field. The electroless nickel plating specification was apparently in line with traditional parameters for corrosion resistance. However, after disassembling the valve and examining the actuator, only a portion of the actuator exhibited rusting or defects. Further analysis revealed that the area that was ground on the part had no problems while the area that was plated over the "as supplied stock" exhibited rust. The plating was identical over the whole part.

With this failure it was identified that the condition of the substrate played the major role in corrosion resistance and was even more significant than the thickness or type of electroless nickel bath incorporated.

Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. While plating brake pistons with electroless nickel and hard chrome, unexpectedly there was a mix of good and bad parts (poor adhesion of the chrome to nickel) coming off the plating line. The inconsistency was perplexing. The complete system was examined in terms of what had changed.

The only variation was the introduction of additional rinse tanks after the activating acid that came prior to the hard chrome plating. The duration of time from the acid into the plating bath was so critical, and the additional rinses increased processing time by 15 seconds.

Timing became critical. Through the introduction of a high-speed hoist, which reduced processing after activation by about 30 seconds, good parts resulted.

Rejects can offer an opportunity to learn about your operation in a much greater way than anything else since there is time pressure and an urgency that is part of that situation.

Benefits of Failure. To fail means you must persist not only once but many times. One of the greatest failures in the early years of the industrial evolution was Thomas Edison. His thousands of failures while working to invent the light bulb are well documented. This points up one of the benefits of failures the human spirit.

In a refrigerator plant in China, defective appliances were produced. The employees on the production line were taken out behind the plant and executed. This attitude does little for long term employment and represents a very sick (if not uncommon) view of dealing with failure, that is, punishment.

What do I do now Coach? Trying more ideas on extraneous applications is a path that is essential for enhancement and development of electroless nickel. One can always hear the naysayers, "do not ask any questions, just follow the specification." Then the question becomes: Do you want us to meet the specification or do you want your parts to work?

What can you expect from great failures? People will not fear taking action; Atmosphere of innovation is encouraged; Mistakes are cherished not chastised; Intuition is fostered; Learning flourishes; Decisions are made without over-analysis; Fewer meetings; and Talking replaces memos.

Unless there is an atmosphere and attitude of tolerance to encourage failure, progress will be stifled and frustration will be inevitable.

Excerpted from a paper presented at Electroless Nickel '95 Conference, November 6-8, 1995, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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