These days, people should stop waiting for perfection and instead experiment, find errors and turn them into innovation, writes WERNER VOGELS, the CTO of Amazon.com.
“Man errs as long as he doth strive.” Goethe, the German prince of poets, knew that already more than 200 years ago. His words still ring true today, but with a crucial difference: Striving alone is not enough. You have to strive faster than the rest. And while there’s nothing wrong with striving for perfection, in today’s digital world you can no longer wait until your products are near perfection before offering them to your customers. If so, you will fall behind in your market.
So if you can’t wait for perfection, what should you do instead? I believe the answer is to experiment aggressively with your product development, accepting the possibility that some of your experiments will fail.
Anyone who has listened to, or worked with, management gurus know their mantra: Failure is a necessary part of progress. That’s true, but there’s often a big gap between the management theory and the reality on the ground. People want to experiment and learn from things that go wrong. But in the flurry of day-to-day business, they’re not given enough time to really reflect on the cause of an error and what to do differently next time.
The solution is to find a systematic approach that prevents errors from repeating themselves.
From perfection to anti-fragility
In finding such a systematic way, you first need to distinguish between two types of errors that can happen in your company: those of technology and those of human decision-making. The nice thing is: if you know how to deal effectively with the first, you might end up being better in the second, making better decisions. The financial mathematician and essayist Nassim Taleb offers an interesting take on this issue. He has argued that errors are incredibly valuable because they lead to innovation. He uses the term ‘anti-fragility’ to make his point. Today’s digital business models require smaller, frequent releases to reduce risk. That means the technologies underpinning these new business models must be more than just robust. They must be ‘anti-fragile’. The main feature of anti-fragile technology is that it can ‘err’ without falling apart. In fact, a crisis can make it even better.
At Amazon, we also require our systems and customer solutions to be anti-fragile, and we do that by designing our systems to stand the test of time. Our systems must be able to evolve and become more resilient to failure. They must become more powerful and more feature-rich over time as a result of learning from customer feedback and any failure modes they may encounter while operating the systems.
An example of a German company that has become ‘anti-fragile’ is HARTING, the world’s leading provider of heavy pluggable connectors for machines and plants. HARTING shows how to think a step ahead about the meaning of quality standards in the digital world. Quality and trust are the most important values for this traditional company, and Industry 4.0 and the digital transformation have already been important focus areas for them since 2011. Even though it was hard to accept at first, HARTING has meanwhile realized that errors are inevitable. For that reason, its development switched to agile methods. It also uses the “minimum-viable-product” approach and relies on microservices for its software. Working this way, HARTING can discard things and create new things more easily. All in all, HARTING has become faster.
That can be seen with HARTING MICA, an edge computing solution that enables older machines and plants to get a digital retrofit. The body and hardware still reflect HARTING’s standard of perfection. But for the software, the goal is “good enough”, because a microservice is neither ever finished nor perfect. As a result, wrong decisions and mistakes can be corrected very quickly and systems can mature faster, approaching the state of antifragility. If the requirements change or better software technologies become available, each microservice can be thrown out and a new one created. That’s how you gain speed and quickly digitize old machines and connect them to the cloud within a manageable cost framework.
Taking the dread out of mistakes
If you want to become anti-fragile, more than robust, like HARTING and other companies, you need to proactively look for the weak spots in a system as you experiment. In a system that should evolve, all sorts of errors will happen that you weren’t able to predict, especially when systems need to scale into unknown territories. So subject your system to continuous failures and make subsystems artificially fail using tools like Netflix’s Chaos Monkey.
If you do all of this, you will start to objectify errors at your company and make dealing with errors a matter of normality. And when errors become ‘business as usual’, no one will be afraid of taking a risk, trying out a new idea, a new product or a new service and seeing what happens when customers interact with it. That’s how you quickly find solutions that really work in the future.
At Amazon, our approach for systematically and constructively dealing with errors is called the “cause of error” method. It refrains from seeking “culprits”. Instead it documents learning experiences and derives actions that ultimately improve the availability of our systems.
From root cause to innovation
The method first calls for fixing an error by analyzing its immediate root cause and taking steps to mitigate the damage and restore the initial running state as quickly as possible.But we are not content with that result. We go further, trying to extract the maximum amount of insight from the incident. And this process begins as soon everything is working again for the client.
A key element of our cause-of-error method is asking 5 ‘Why?’ questions (a technique that originated in quality control in manufacturing). This is important because it determines the fundamental root of the problem.
Take the case of a website: Why was it down last Friday? The web servers reported timeouts. Why were there timeouts? Because our web services are overloaded and couldn’t cope with the high traffic. Why were the web servers overloaded? Because we don’t have enough web servers to handle all requests at peak times. Why don’t we have enough web servers? Because we didn’t consider possible peaks in demand in our planning. Why didn’t we take peaks in demand into account in our planning? By the end of this process, we know exactly what happened and which clients were affected. Then we’re in a position to distill an action plan that ensures that specific error doesn’t happen again.
Quite often, applying this cause-of-error approach allows us to find breakthrough innovations, in the spirit of Nassim Taleb. That’s how the solution Auto Scaling was created, after a certain client segment was fighting with strongly fluctuating hits on their website. When the load increases for a website, Auto Scaling automatically spins up an additional web server to service the rising number of requests. Conversely, when the load subsides, Auto Scaling turns off web servers that are not needed in order to save cost.
What it reveals is: Organizations need to look beyond superficial success. This is true for the development of systems as well as business models. If you want to remain agile in a complex environment, you must follow this path, even if it means leaving the comfort zone. If we transfer these ideas into an organizational context, three aspects might be worth considering:
1. Embrace error as a matter of fact
Jeff Bezos once said about Amazon: “I believe we are the best place in the world to fail.” That inspires a lot of our people to experiment, find errors and turn them into something innovative. A statement like this encourages your people to actively look for errors, and to turn them into pieces of innovation. And: reward employees when they find errors. What we have learned from our development work at Amazon is that you need to always look beyond the surface of an error. Some of our best products have been born from errors.
2. Make due with incomplete information
German companies have a tradition of being thorough and perfectionist. In the digital world, however, you need to loosen those principles a bit. Technology is changing so fast; you need to be fast too. Make decisions even if the information you have is not as complete as you would like.Jeff Bezos put his finger on that when he wrote in his most recent letter to shareholders that “most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”
3. Praise the value of learning
I’ve stressed the need for companies to have a systematic approach to how they deal with errors. But your approach will only work if it’s part of your overall culture. Make sure you understand your DNAandknow what people are thinking and talking about on the work floor. Openly praising experimentation in product development and encouraging people to find errors will come across as empty rhetoric if your employees really do have reason to fear repercussions for themselves personally if they make mistakes.
It is a matter of leadership to foster and shape a culture of experimentation that is practiced day in, day out.
Whatever companies come up with in order to systematically learn from mistakes, it will make them better in competing in the digital world. And it will give them the freedom and courage to take their systems, solutions and business models to a higher level.
YouTube Music announces Smart Downloads, SA playlists
The service has introduced Smart Downloads which takes allowing users to store and play hundreds of tunes offline, automatically.
The latest updates from YouTube Music, for subscribers of its Music Premium and Premium services, include a new feature that allows users to switch seamlessly between a song and its music video for an uninterrupted experience.
It has also introduced Smart Downloads which takes the work out of downloading music, allowing users to store and play hundreds of tunes offline, automatically. YouTube Music has also announced new playlists for South Africa.
The updates all reflect features that are popular on the global leader in music streaming, Spotify, and that have been key to its growth.
YouTube said in a statement on Friday: “Imagine listening to a new track by your favourite artist in the YouTube Music app and having the ability to seamlessly switch over to watch the music video – no pauses, no interruptions, just a simple tap that keeps the music flowing. This standout new feature from YouTube Music allows YouTube Premium and YouTube Music Premium subscribers to make a seamless transition between a song and its music video for uninterrupted listening and/or watching. Whether you’re in the mood for listening or watching (or a little of both)… it’s all here – no app switching required.”
With Smart Downloads, YouTube Music automatically saves music at night, when connected to Wi-Fi, helping subscribers to use less mobile data, enjoy a smoother updating experience and save up to 500 songs offline using Liked Songs playlist as well as other playlists and albums.
Previously, music lovers could use the Offline Mixtape feature to download up to 100 songs, specifically chosen for them based on what they listened to most on the platform. Now, with Smart Downloads, they select the number of songs they would like automatically downloaded by toggling their YouTube Music Settings. This means YouTube Music Premium subscribers with Smart Downloads enabled on their mobile devices can now access hundreds of tracks regardless of connectivity.
This feature is currently available on Android, with plans to bring it to iOS in the future.
Click here to read more about YouTube Music playlists, and find out what is inside them.
Make cars, not waste
Jaguar Land Rover is trialling an innovative recycling process which converts plastic waste into a new premium grade material that could feature on future vehicles.
It’s estimated that the amount of waste plastic is predicted to exceed 12 million tonnes globally by 2050*. Today, not all of this plastic can be recycled for use in automotive applications – especially in vehicle parts that are required to meet the most exacting safety and quality standards.
Working in conjunction with chemical company, BASF, Jaguar Land Rover is part of a pilot project called ChemCycling that upcycles domestic waste plastic, otherwise destined for landfill or incinerators, into a new high-quality material.
The waste plastic is transformed to pyrolysis oil using a thermochemical process. This secondary raw material is then fed into BASF’s production chain as a replacement for fossil resources; ultimately producing a new premium grade that replicates the high quality and performance of ‘virgin’ plastics. Importantly, it can be tempered and coloured making it the ideal sustainable solution for designing the next-generation dashboards and exterior-surfaces in Jaguar and Land Rover models.
Jaguar Land Rover and BASF are currently testing the pilot phase material in a Jaguar I-PACE prototype front-end carrier overmoulding to verify it meets the same stringent safety requirements of the existing original part.
Pending the outcome of the trials and progression in taking chemical recycling to market readiness, adoption of the new premium material would mean Jaguar Land Rover could use domestically derived recycled plastic content throughout its cars without any compromise to quality or safety performance**.
Chris Brown, Senior Sustainability Manager at Jaguar Land Rover, said: “Plastics are vital to car manufacturing and have proven benefits during their use phase, however, plastic waste remains a major global challenge. Solving this issue requires innovation and joined-up thinking between regulators, manufacturers and suppliers.
“At Jaguar Land Rover, we are proactively increasing recycled content in our products, removing single-use plastics across our operations and reducing excess waste across the product lifecycle. The collaboration with BASF is just one way in which we are advancing our commitment to operating in a circular economy.”
This is the latest example of Jaguar Land Rover’s commitment to addressing the challenge of waste plastic. The company has collaborated with Kvadrat to offer customers alternative seat options that are both luxurious and sustainable. The high-quality material, available initially on the Range Rover Velar and Range Rover Evoque, combines a durable wool blend with a technical suedecloth that is made from 53 recycled plastic bottles per vehicle.
Jaguar Land Rover has already met its 2020 target for Zero Waste to Landfill for UK operations. This includes the removal of 1.3 million m2 – equal to 187 football pitches – of plastic from its manufacturing lineside and replacing 14 million single use plastic items in business operations.
Together, these efforts are driving towards Jaguar Land Rover’s vision for Destination Zero; an ambition to make societies safer and healthier, and the environment cleaner. Delivered through relentless innovation to adapt its products and services to the rapidly-changing world, the company’s focus is on achieving a future of zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion.
** All Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles tested have achieved a Euro NCAP 5* rating.