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Failure of the last mile is a phrase that can be applied to a variety of fields to express the importance of the last leg or finishing details of a project or goal. While the concept can be applied to many circumstances, it seems to have originated in the technology sphere, specifically related to communications providers. To provide Internet, cable or phone service, companies had to spend lots of money on building the massive infrastructure necessary to make those services available to their customers. Part of that massive infrastructure, however, includes what service companies referred to as the last mile — laying the cable or phone lines connecting the infrastructure to each end user. Without this last mile, the massive infrastructure was rendered essentially useless because the project goal, communication service for its customers, was no longer attainable.
Failure of the last mile, therefore, focuses on the critical nature of the final steps of a goal. Even if the bulk of the job is completed, sometimes that last part can make or break success.
Perhaps the most literal application of the concept relates to running a marathon. A runner may spend months preparing for a marathon. He may train every day and practice running long distances to build up his endurance. Despite being properly prepared, if a mile before approaching the end, the runner falls and can't finish the race, he can be said to experience a failure of the last mile in its strictest sense. He has put in lots of preparation but fails in the final leg to achieve his objective of finishing or winning the marathon.
A failure of the last mile can be applied to politics as well. For example, if a political party wants to increase voter participation, the party might invest time and money into encouraging voter registration and voting. If the week or day before voting occurs, all advertising stops, or the political party does not telephone or email prospective voters on voting day, it may not be successful in increasing voter turnout. The hard work and money invested is essentially erased by a failure of the last mile or follow-through up to the minute when that goal could be achieved.
Perhaps the easiest way to think of this concept is to consider the car salesman. A car salesman may spend lots of time convincing someone to buy a car. He might spend lots of time informing the customer about the features of the car, taking him on multiple test drives, and even meeting with him over multiple days. After all this work, the customer might agree to buy the car, but if the car salesman doesn't see that purchase to its end (i.e., to the point that the customer signs the paperwork) and rather hastily moves on to the next customer, the salesman might fail at the last mile if the first customer ends up changing his mind. In other words, a failure of the last mile, is a failure of a salesman to seal the deal.
Sealing the deal, reaching the end, accomplishing a goal are all antitheses of a failure of the last mile. Whether in business, competition, technology or other fields, the final details of any endeavor are important and can be critically important to success. Relax too soon and your endeavor can be subject to a failure of the last mile. Follow through to the last minutes and your project or goal is more likely to be successful.