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Reducing Employee Errors

How can you reach the lofty goal of "zero defects"?

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I have a small printing business, and employee errors are driving me crazy. One customer rejection or one shipping error can cost me a customer and a month's profit. I've fired people. I've yelled and screamed. I've trained till I'm blue in the face, and still I have errors. I know that large companies talk about "zero defects," but is that possible? Are my expectations unrealistic?

A: Your concern about this problem is not misplaced. Customers have zero tolerance these days for any kind of error. Ever since the publication of Philip B. Crosby's book Quality Is Free, organizations have realized that errors in any part of a business are extremely expensive. Crosby estimated that the cost of quality was 25 percent of revenue! This caught on to the extent that companies are almost totally intolerant of any form of poor quality. "Zero defects" was the battle cry of organizations large and small for many years. When they realized that zero defects are realistically impossible, it led to the current fad, "Six Sigma." This means that Six Sigma organizations are not satisfied unless error rates one in 1 million or less. While no one would argue with such a goal, the problem is how to get from where you are to there.

Technically, there are only two ways to get there. One is with positive reinforcement, and the other is negative reinforcement. In other words, we can demand improvement (negative reinforcement), or we can do things to cause people to be excited about making improvement. The most common way is to demand improvement and to fire, discipline or "chew people out" when they make an error. The problem with this approach is that contrary to common belief, it is the slow and costly way to get improvement. In my book, Bringing Out The Best In People, I write about the fact that negative reinforcement gives managers the "illusion of control," not real control.

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Check out these other titles by Philip Crosby:

The Absolutes of Leadership

Quality Without Tears

The fastest way to make an improvement in your situation seems the slowest. That is, you should identify the behaviors that create high-quality or error-free output, develop a way to measure and monitor them, and then provide positive reinforcement for improvement. You should not measure errors, but instead track desirable behavior like "shipments without an error." Remember, you want to measure what you want people to do. This differs from what is commonly done, which is to measure errors. Create a graph so that you have increasing numbers, not decreasing ones. Place the graph in an area that people frequent every day. Try to track results daily if possible.

Once you have determined the behaviors and results you want, you need to develop a plan to positively reinforce the behaviors when you see them and celebrate sub-goals along the way. Set small goals in the beginning so that improvement is easy. This will allow people to receive the positive reinforcement that will create energy and excitement about improvement. Remember, the more you positively reinforce, the faster the improvement. Think of positive reinforcement in this case as any interaction with your employees that communicates that you like, appreciate or value what they are doing. When you reach a sub-goal, spend some time letting people tell you what they did to make the improvement. And finally, be patient with the small improvements. If you are, you will find that you will make more and better progress than you believed possible.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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