The Importance of Mistakes
We need to create an environment where mistakes are tolerated, where people who make mistakes are encouraged. Heresy! You may be saying. Our goal is to eliminate mistakes not encourage them. I am arguing that a work environment where mistakes are forbidden and punished inevitably does more harm than good.
Let’s face it, mistakes are going to happen. We can do everything in our power to eliminate the failures that create mistakes… but they’re still going to happen. If we fear making mistakes, and more importantly if we fear how others will react to our mistakes we may act in ways that are counterproductive. According to W. Edwards Deming in his classic Out of the Crisis, “the economic loss from fear is appalling.” Deming made it Point 8 in this 14 Points of Management; “Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” It is how we react to mistakes and to the people who make them, that determines our long-term success.
Let’s take a look at example described by Dr. Joyce Orsini in her book Deming, The American who Taught the Japanese About Quality. This real-world example centers on a bank and the problem of daily shortages and overages. Management decided they would solve the problem by putting any teller with two discrepancies on probation with the third incident resulting in termination. They played the “Fear” card.
What happened? Nearly all the shortage and overage discrepancies disappeared. Problem solved!
But wait a second, how could the discrepancies disappear so quickly and so completely? In fact, the tellers developed a simple but sophisticated system. The tellers began operating their own pools of money. When overages occurred, instead of being reported, they were saved. When tellers came up short on a given day, they would withdraw from the funds saved on the “over” days. Those who needed funds borrowed from those with excess funds. A sophisticated system of borrowing and lending evolved.
In reality the problem was not solved, it simply migrated underground. Deming argued that whenever fear exists, people will develop defense mechanisms for survival. This further decreases productivity, because people work first for survival based on how they are judged. Then they give their next efforts to accomplishing their work objectives.
Imagine another environment where mistakes are intolerable. Let’s say the pilot asks the altimeter, “What’s our altitude?” and the response comes back, “what would you like it to be?” Well you say, “that’s impossible, an altimeter is just a machine that says what it says.” Exactly the point. The altimeter isn’t worried about getting punished for delivering bad news and thus can be relied upon to make critical decisions. The same applies to project managers and project contributors. We must create an environment where we are encouraged to identify problems so that we can fix them.
I recall a story one Sr. Portfolio Management customer of PowerSteering Software told me. He said, “I look for the projects that have no reported issues. Those are the ones I’m really worried about.” It was his philosophy to make problems visible. To reward the whistleblowers with the courage to point out mistakes so they could be mitigated. In his mind if a project had no reported issues then maybe they were just trying to keep their heads low by covering up problems.
There is no doubt that when people are motivated by fear, afraid of management, afraid of being punished for making mistakes, productivity suffers. Management can reduce this kind of fear by encouraging and rewarding problem identification that leads to quality improvement.
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About Randy Clark
Randy Clark is the Director, Six Sigma with Upland Software. Randy has over 20 years’ experience working in continuous improvement with emphasis in Six Sigma and the Baldrige criteria for performance excellence. He joined Upland’s PowerSteering team in 2004.
While with Whirlpool Corp. as Director, Global Quality, Randy directed a Baldrige-based improvement effort, implementing numerous approaches to measure and improve performance. His leadership resulted in Whirlpool being recognized as a best practice company by the American Productivity and Quality Center, as well as winning recognition as a leader in the Michigan Quality Award (State Baldrige Award).
While working with Pitney Bowes, as Director, Quality and Productivity, Randy deployed a Six Sigma initiative from the ground floor. In less than seven months 40 Black Belts were trained with projects producing over $13 million in first year benefits.
Randy is a Black Belt and Executive Master Black Belt-trained member of the American Society of Quality, and is a three-year examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
Randy, grew up the son of an NFL player and Coach, he and his wife Michele have two grown sons and currently reside in Connecticut.