Here is an excerpt from on two ways engineering failures can inform smart business thinking and then a book review on To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure by Henry Petroski.

In 2009 a thirteen-story apartment building in Shanghai collapsed, nearly intact. Oddly, the design and construction of the building had nothing to do with its demise. After the building was completed, workers excavated a deep hole on one side to make room for an underground parking lot. They trucked the excavated dirt around the building and piled it on the ground, creating a thirty-five foot heap. Heavy rains saturated the dirt, putting unexpected lateral pressure on the building’s foundation, which began to shift. Eventually, this asymmetrical strain caused the building to fall on its side like a domino. One worker was killed.

When I read about this unfortunate accident in Henry Petroski’s To Forgive Design, I thought about a few parallels in the business world. First, after a highly visible engineering failure, our knee-jerk reaction is to blame the design or the designer. The disaster in Shanghai had nothing to do with either. “Had its designers known that the piles would be subject to sideways pressure, they would have made them larger and thus more resistant.” Sound business practices fail for the same reason: unforeseeable, external pressure. In a passage that could come from Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, Petroski writes that, “Even if a building is well designed structurally, it can still succumb to failure through no fault of its own.”

To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure – Description

How Engineering Failures Can Improve Business Thinking

To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure by Henry Petroski

When planes crash, bridges collapse, and automobile gas tanks explode, we are quick to blame poor design. But Henry Petroski says we must look beyond design for causes and corrections. Known for his masterly explanations of engineering successes and failures, Petroski here takes his analysis a step further, to consider the larger context in which accidents occur.

In To Forgive Design he surveys some of the most infamous failures of our time, from the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the toppling of a massive Shanghai apartment building in 2009 to Boston’s prolonged Big Dig and the 2010 Gulf oil spill. These avoidable disasters reveal the interdependency of people and machines within systems whose complex behavior was undreamt of by their designers, until it was too late. Petroski shows that even the simplest technology is embedded in cultural and socioeconomic constraints, complications, and contradictions.

Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is the most profound mistake engineers can make. Software developers realized this early on and looked outside their young field, to structural engineering, as they sought a historical perspective to help them identify their own potential mistakes. By explaining the interconnectedness of technology and culture and the dangers that can emerge from complexity, Petroski demonstrates that we would all do well to follow their lead.

To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure – Reviews

[An] authoritative text about the interrelationship between success and failure in the engineering enterprise…Petroski’s most gripping passages are his Sherlockian dissections of engineering fiascos and the importance of learning from the vast archive of forensic analyses. (Kirkus Reviews 2012-02-01)

Though his focus here is primarily on bridges, Petroski extends his analysis to include the sinking of the Titanic, the mid-flight explosion of TWA Flight 800, the Challenger tragedy, the Y2K computer programming crisis, and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each has its own unique set of human, mechanical, and engineering failures, and Petroski does a terrific job of identifying and communicating not only what went wrong, but what was learned from the failure and how that knowledge has since been put into practice. Fellow engineers and armchair scientists will get the most out of the book, but even the layman will find Petroski’s study to be accessible, informative, and interesting. (Publishers Weekly 2012-02-06)

Petroski follows up his first book, To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, with this examination of human failure. In the previous title, he primarily considered mechanical and structural failures. Here, he looks not only at how people contribute to the failure of engineering designs but also at how analyzing those failures can improve subsequent models. He considers many different types of failures, from several infamous bridge collapses to carefully designed intentional failures, which are engineered specifically to prevent greater failures. In each case, Petroski goes beyond an explanation of the mechanical failure itself to point out how humans created these and other problems through systemic mistakes. (Carla H. Lee Library Journal 2012-02-15)

When a plane crashes or a bridge collapses, faulty engineering is the usual suspect. But in seeking the roots of failure, we should look beyond design, says engineer Henry Petroski. We must probe the political and economic imperatives that shape purposes and use. In this follow-up to his influential To Engineer is Human, Petroski argues that accidents such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are the result of faults as much in “human machinery” as in mechanical devices. He praises software developers for learning from structural engineering about how to report and analyze mishaps. (Nature 2012-03-01)

To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure A rewarding read. (Jonathon Keats New Scientist 2012-03-17)

By critically examining the interdependency of people and machines related to bridge collapses, airplane crashes and space shuttle failures, Petroski discovers that understanding failure is the only way to bring successful design and engineering into the future. (Megan Wood Salon 2012-03-25)

Nonengineers needn’t worry that the book will be too dense with details; Petroski makes the science easily understandable…[This is] a book that satisfactorily explains why our determination to push the boundaries guarantees both failure and triumph. (James F. Sweeney Cleveland Plain Dealer 2012-04-05)

[A] fascinating and occasionally unnerving history of engineering failures…After reading this book, one might be tempted never to venture across a bridge again. But of course that would miss Petroski’s goal: to show how engineers learn from failure and improve their designs…For those who enjoy reading about girders and trusses, To Forgive Design is, yes, riveting…[Petroski] amply shows the wisdom of the proverb that failure is a good teacher. Even a collapsed bridge leads somewhere. (Matt Ridley Wall Street Journal 2012-04-10)

Engineering is interesting when it works, but much more compelling when it doesn’t. Petroski may be one of his profession’s establishment figures, but his key finding is highly critical: because most engineers don’t know much about the history of engineering, complacency and gee-whizz design software is likely to foment a fairly regular incidence of potentially catastrophic structural failures…Much of the information will be of great interest to engineers and designers…The most brilliantly explained engineering failure concerns the ocean-bed blowout involving the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010. Petroski’s exposition is immensely detailed and benefits from being linear in its narrative. This section of the book is exemplary in its remorseless exfoliation of the technical and commercial reasons for the incident. (Jay Merrick The Independent 2012-05-19)

Americans are encouraged to believe that failure is not an option, but author Henry Petroski regards it as just about inevitable. A professor of civil engineering and history at

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