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Bechtel’s Impact Report

How to Innovate When “Fail Fast, Fail Often” Isn’t an Option

  • By
    portrait of David Wilson
    David Wilson, Chief Innovation Officer
  • 29 October 2019
     3 Min Read

Throughout my career, I’ve heard different variations of “fail fast and fail often” as the key to innovation. While that may be ideal for some industries, like software or consumer products, it doesn’t work for the EPC industry or industrial sectors where safety and reliability are ultra-critical.

On virtually every Bechtel project, the health and safety of our workforce, our customers, and neighboring communities is in the balance, along with multibillion-dollar capital investments. As a result, our stakeholders depend on us for well tested innovations that can be rapidly deployed and adopted by project teams around the world. Well tested innovations result in the elimination or reduction of unknowns before introducing a new solution into an operating environment or active project with safety, quality, cost, and schedule implications.

This focus on reducing the risk of innovation is reflected in our mantra of “learn safe, learn fast, and learn forward.”

In our experience, the best way to mature innovative solutions is to prototype them in a physical environment that closely reflects job site conditions, essentially a lab for designers and builders. Doing so results in a better understanding of integration complexity, the capabilities of the technology, and real versus theoretical benefit discrepancies, as well as the implications of how solutions might be deployed and scaled.

This is where facilities like the Bechtel Welding and Applied Technology Center (WATC) in Houston, Texas, and the Oracle Innovation Lab in Chicago, Illinois, add tremendous value. WATC has created an environment where Bechtel colleagues have been able to safely advance new approaches to steel erection, pipe installation, welding, material testing, scanning, robotics, autonomous equipment, tooling, and the Internet of Things. All of which are being developed to deliver safer, better, faster, and leaner projects.

When project teams are given hands-on experience with new solutions at our lab, in conjunction with partners and customers, it often leads immediately to a passionate discussion regarding adoption. This is because they have the opportunity to evaluate the proof of concept in a controlled environment, ask questions and probe the solution to create confidence in the testing and maturity of the innovation before they choose to deploy. Alternatively, interrogating a slide deck rather than a physical prototype makes this process take much longer.

Rest assured you can still be innovative if you don’t have the space, time, or resources to create a physically separate lab for construction technology R&D.

Start by finding a small area of a project, with a supportive supervisor – and if applicable a supportive customer -- where you can create a controlled environment to test and then rapidly prototype a low-cost solution before requesting additional resources for broader engagement. Always focus on creating momentum and moving the small physical demonstration forward in your organization. And if in doubt, seek out partners with the appropriate space like the WATC to demonstrate your emerging solution.

Choosing the right path for innovation comes down to understanding your industry’s ability to take risks. If you’re in an industry where an error can be fixed by seamlessly pushing an updated version or product to all users with limited interruptions, then failing fast and failing often may work for you. However, if failing creates risk for your team, customer, or the community, then learning safe, fast, and forward may be your best option.

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