What went right?

Thirty-four years ago, when Playboy magazine was in its heyday, I had the opportunity to spend a day with one of Playboy's marketing managers. We toured the impressive headquarters and had lunch at the Playboy Club in the next block. It was a heady experience for a young man not yet into the world of publishing.
By Richard L. Dunn Editor March 11, 2002

Thirty-four years ago, when Playboy magazine was in its heyday, I had the opportunity to spend a day with one of Playboy ‘s marketing managers. We toured the impressive headquarters and had lunch at the Playboy Club in the next block. It was a heady experience for a young man not yet into the world of publishing.

As we chatted, the marketing manager made a comment that has never left me. “We’ve been incredibly successful,” he said. “The problem is nobody really knows why. We’re all afraid that it could all come to an end as quickly as it grew.”

Over the years, that comment has often returned to haunt me. I’ve seen countless examples of success — big and little — when nobody really knew why. And when the success doesn’t continue or isn’t repeated, nobody understands the reasons.

We have a tremendous propensity to analyze when things go wrong. And that’s fine. It’s important. It’s part of the scientific method, so to speak. But on the flip side, we’re far too eager to accept when things go right without much thought as to why.

Every time there is a failure, every time something breaks, every time a schedule is missed, every time a cost is exceeded the question is asked, “What went wrong?”

But when the project is finished before schedule and under budget, when equipment continues to run reliably year after year, do we ask, “What went right?” Not often enough.

Human nature being what it is, we tend to ride along with the good times and not ask too many questions. It’s as though we’re afraid we might jinx things. Then, when things start down hill, we want to know what went wrong and who’s at fault without ever knowing what created the success in the first place.

Maintenance is a function based largely on what went or is going wrong. We fix, we troubleshoot, we conduct root cause analyses. Only recently has focus begun to change toward what is going right and why.

Even when we do discover what’s going right, we often fail to do the things that will sustain it. We know, for example, that preventive and predictive maintenance fall into the category of doing things right. Yet, in too many plants these programs are unappreciated and underfunded.

In these days of business downturns and Enron disasters, we are quick to ask, “What went wrong?” Perhaps more importantly we should be looking at past successes and asking, “What went right?”