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Learn From Your Mistakes

When ignored, even small mishaps can have major consequences.
September 24, 2009

If we want business success, we have to look clearly at our mistakes--and stop repeating them. We need to work with our team, not against them, to do this. Too often business owners tell me, "It was just a small mistake." But, there are no small mistakes. Why?

Just as I was writing this, I got a call from a college where I teach. Someone in HR made a "small mistake," and lost my hiring package. The action of the mistake was small--it probably took only minutes for someone to throw away the file. But the consequences are huge--if I don't fix the problem, I will be unable to teach four courses this fall, and lose a major client.

In fact, every mistake has at least six different sizes:

  1. The size of the mistake itself, which is usually small.
  2. The size of the consequences if the mistake is not found and corrected, which can be huge.
  3. The size of the time and cost it will take to fix the mistake.
  4. The size of the causes of the mistake.
  5. The size of the effort to prevent the mistake from happening again.
  6. The size of the benefits from ensuring the mistake doesn't happen again.

For example, in my case of the college losing my file:

  1. Losing the file was a small mistake.
  2. If nothing is done, four classes won't be taught, the students will be disappointed and I won't get a paycheck.
  3. It will take me several hours to reproduce the application that I wrote when I was not busy. I have to reproduce it when I am very busy. I have to give up billable work time to fix the problem.
  4. The causes of the mistake--caused by poor management--are huge.
  5. An organized management training program can prevent these problems.
  6. Rutgers University implemented such a program and went from being a rather backwater school to being excellent in just a couple of years.

Remember the presidential election of 2000? A small mistake--a poorly designed ballot in Florida--led to a contested presidential election.

Anger Doesn't Solve Anything
This morning, a graphic artist who does excellent work sent me a link that pointed to the wrong version of an image. I spent 45 minutes trying to explain to him what I needed. Then I discovered his error, and realized he had actually already done a great job from the start.

He did great work, but he cost me tons of time on a project that should have only taken 45 minutes to begin with. He wasted my time and my first reaction was to fire him. And the moment I got that mad, I became part of the problem.

I'm a bit embarrassed about how irritated I can get about things like this. I can justify my frustration: I know this kind of continued incompetence costs our society billions of dollars a year. At the same time, anger and frustration especially from owners and managers, is a big part of the problem. Employees say "It's only a small problem" because they feel threatened.

Creating a work environment where fear is present is, in fact, the root of the problem. W. Edwards Deming, the guru of total quality management, made "elimination of fear" one of the key points of his program for eliminating errors and the damage they do.

I believe in creating a no-blame environment that encourages people to speak up about their own mistakes, and other problems that they see. It's important to note that the person is almost never the problem. I think the person is the problem only in extreme cases, such as criminal activity or drug or alcohol addiction. And even then, what they are doing is a problem for your business, and society's job to prevent and heal.

Rather, the fear in everyone is the problem. So, to build a strong, healthy, business you must support people in doing excellent work. That means supporting them in speaking up about problems, and helping you to fix your business.