“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” – Mark Twain
We all make errors, it is part of life. I have made more than a few, and some of them were big ones. When an error occurs by an employee inside an organization, there can be a concern on the part of the employee that the over-riding motivation on the part of management when investigating the error is not simply to learn from the error and put into place corrective actions, but that there will be some form of retribution taken against the employee. This can often be the case no matter what words are coming out of the organization regarding their motivation to find the cause of the errors, and to learn from mistakes so that they don’t reoccur.
One clue that brings you to this conclusion is seen in emails that inform everyone that an error has been discovered where the identity of the person who committed the error is kept secret. A sure sign that not everyone is operating, or has everyone else convinced that the organization is operating with a no retribution lets learn from our mistakes kind of philosophy.
It seems like some organizations are constantly trying to learn from the same kind of mistakes over and over again. It is like having 1 year of experience 20 times. One approach that can get organizations out of that rut is to employ an organizing framework. An organizing framework allows errors to be examined systematically within that framework and for conclusions to be drawn regarding what needs to change to prevent the error from occurring once again. But, it is however like the old joke – “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.” Organizations when they examine and properly conclude the causes of their errors still have to really want to change. Knowledge of the cause, in and of itself, does not fix the problem. (See Is Grandpa going to be ok, for a discussion about the role of wishful thinking and organizational change).
First there is the issue of whether the employees are capable of doing the job from a basic knowledge skills and ability standpoint. That issue is a selection issue and for our immediate purposes lets put that aside and assume that the people who have been put into the job, if the conditions were right, could actually perform it. (See There is Something Fishy about Employee Selection). With the framework that I use there are then just a few questions that help get at the heart of the matter.
First do the employees know how to do a good job?
A failing grade on this first question could be due to issues of messaging within the organization or perhaps performance. From a messaging standpoint has it been made clear what the definition is of a good job? Do the employees know what criteria levels are defined as good or error free? From a performance perspective have employees been given the training they need so that they know how to perform in an error-free fashion?
Second question: Do the employees have the resources needed to do a good job?
The best messaging is for naught if employees don’t have the resources they need to perform error free. Resources can be thought of very broadly in three main categories.
- Physical Environment
Information includes knowledge about how to do the job, including the relevant training; it also includes information flows that enable a job to be performed correctly. For instance a production report is an information flow that allows an employee to predict accurately when an item might be shipped.
Physical Environment includes the needed equipment, staffing levels, organizational structure etc. If one person is put on a 3 person job you can be pretty sure it will have problems. Or if one person is simply not given the appropriate amount of time to do a good job it just won’t happen. Likewise if needed computer equipment, or other equipment is not provided it is difficult to get the job done. Remember the old adage – the right tool for the right job.
Processes cover administrative issues, engineering and science. Administratively for instance, can a bill be sent out correctly and within an acceptable period of time. When a customer calls can they get through to someone, preferable someone who can help them? From an engineering perspective are the business and manufacturing or service processes ones that make sense, do they optimize resources? What kind of person with what background and skill set do you have doing what job? Does the work flow make sense? Are needless processes eliminated? Etc. From a science standpoint, are the basic business products or processes based on sound science. For instance, if you are in the oil industry but you can’t get the geology right and hence keep digging in the wrong spot, the rest doesn’t matter.
Third question: Do the employees care enough to do a good job?
The appropriate information and resources may be in place but if the individual employee just does not care, or is rewarded for the wrong behavior then it is again unlikely that you will achieve the desired outcome. We all know you get what you reward so examine what you are rewarding. If you are rewarding X don’t expect A.
The other aspect of just not caring is potentially one of the most complex. It involves the entire culture that the organization has set up and that is why it can give an organization an unbeatable edge. Processes and products can be reverse engineered, prices can be even more easily matched, but duplicating a culture and the resultant ways the individuals within your culture interact with your customers and care about their work can be very difficult to match to a successful competitor. It involves the whole gestalt of how the organization is viewed by the employee (is the place effectively managed, does the organization really care about its people, do people get a fair shake here etc.) and at the individual level what is in it for me? Why should I stick around this place? And do people have a sense of future that if they stick around good things can happen for them.
When errors occur, systematically working through these questions can help the organization determine the correct course of action so the organization can implement lasting improvement, thereby reducing the number of errors and to learn from its history.
“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”
-Orlando A. Battista
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.