I grew up amongst the Batswana, where I would regularly  eat ting ya mabele (a traditional fermented sorghum porridge) at home, and at celebratory and family events. I did not know how to prepare it and given that it’s now something that I cannot access easily in my current social circles I started to miss its unique, delicious taste.

I tried to find someone to teach me how to prepare it, but was unsuccessful, so I decided to take the challenge into my own hands (If you’d like to do the same, check out some recipes here). My first attempt was a real flop, as the mixture had a very strong smell, and a weak, sour taste. My second attempt was definitely better, but there was still room for improvement.

I was on my third attempt of preparing the fermented ting ya mabele mixture when I observed what seemed to be signs of failure, once again. In this latest attempt I added more grains, because I realised that the preparation guide suggested that I could choose the consistency of my paste, as long as the mixture didn’t become too dry.








The consequence of putting extra grains into the mixture was that the mixture overflowed out of the container and moisture was lost, because the sorghum grains expanded during fermentation. Each of these attempts did not create the desired product quality, and the delicious taste of my childhood which I was striving for. As I looked at the latest looming failure, I reflected on how we are taught and socialised to respond to failures.

We live in an era of hyper-competitiveness and sometimes it seems like our obsession with winning creates no room for failure. Winning, or getting everything right on the first attempt, is highly praised. There is not much appreciation of the learning opportunity that exists when we fail to reach our goals. I have also observed this social view coming out in my daughter, aged 8, in her reactions to moments of failure and not winning. She does not like losing (or even, I’d go so far as to say, she isn’t pleased unless she is in first place) at all. I have also noticed that the fear of failure can stop her from trying new things.

I wondered what I could do to help her realise that failure is an opportunity to learn and not an end in itself. The Toyota Kata, as deciphered by Mike Rother, provides a good description of how we can fail forward and learn from failures by embracing the practice of scientific thinking.

I looked at the repeated unsatisfactory efforts at making the ting ya mabele mixture and I decided to use this experience to demonstrate how we can learn, and improve from failures. I prepared a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle’s Record in retrospect to my experience.

Let me be the first to admit that completing the columns of the PDCA Cycle’s Record is easier said than done. I have noticed that I am not alone: many participants in our Kata workshops usually struggle to complete the last two columns (completing this document requires an article on its own and I may visit this in future). My experience of using the PDCA Cycles Record to capture my attempts at preparing ting ya mabele, and reflecting on failures, led me to realise the power of learning, and failing forward. I also realised that using the PDCA Cycle document is not restricted to any space or environment i.e. it is applicable at home, school, work, and, really, almost everywhere.

This experiment reminded me of the video of Kata at home which showed how this simple and profound method of learning could transform the life of our children. It could help them to set goals and work towards them, curbing the societal reflex to give up, if at first you fail. I believe this process has the ability to change how children react to moments of failure. So now, introducing the Kata to my daughter seems like the next logical step to help her realise that failure is not the end, but an opportunity to learn.

Maybe her thinking will shift from the one on the left side to the right side as shown in the image below. What do you think?

It is my hope and intention, that through my failures forward, and what I’ve learned along the way, that I will get closer to my childhood memories of the ting ya mabele that I so enjoyed. I am confident that through my continued experimentation I will reach my goal. It is my hope that my daughter learns the value in failing forwards, and takes the lessons with her day-to-day, because life and work are full of opportunities for learning through problems. May she realise errors/mistakes/failures are not automatically negative, but rather an opportunity for improvement and growth.

As I do this reflection, I am reminded of someone who said “sometimes we have to see failure as the learning that comes

before the earning”. How about learning from failures in the work environment? How is failure viewed in your organisation and how is learning from failure captured in a way which helps the organisation move forward?

Warm regards,

Tshepo Thobejane
Lean Institute Africa Business Development Manager – Gauteng