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Manage Better by Understanding Mistakes and Why People Make Them

Many companies use some kind of program for “measuring quality,” but the result of these assessment is typically expressed in “error rates.”

Error rates are pretty worthwhile when they’re used to identify process steps that have broken down or reveal inaccurate procedures that don’t account for the way things really happen. Examining what’s gone wrong can trigger a search for better ways to do things or reopen discussions about desired outcomes so people can choose better actions, reactions, or solutions.

That’s the bright side of evaluating errors. Unfortunately, however, there’s also a shadow side.

The Dark Side of Quality Measurement

It’s fairly common practice for a supervisor or manager to go back to associates who have made mistakes and tell them what they did wrong and how the job must be done. Often this talk is punitive, as if there were actually something wrong with the person rather than the work. Only rarely does discussion take place with the intention of finding out how and why the mistake happened or of helping employees come up with ways to do the job more effectively.

Why is this blaming and shaming so frequent, despite its proven ineffectiveness at solving most workplace problems?

Inaccurate work is often viewed as a ding against the supervisor, so it’s only natural that supervisors frequently feel aggravated at the human beings who made the errors. Criticism may seem like supervisors’ best leverage, but it’s uncomfortable to deliver the criticism, so many supervisors may forget to separate the workers from the work and end up resenting them as people. Some managers even go so far as to write off error-prone workers entirely — they don’t want to deal with them anymore because it’s just too painful not to have eliminated the problem.

To Err Is Human; to Help Employees Improve Is Humane

But blame is just a way to externalize the fear, disruption, and distress that these managers feel when something is wrong and they don’t know what to do about it.

Here’s a better approach: Instead of using the data from a quality assessment to punish and shame people, shift the emphasis to finding the underlying source of the errors. This is particularly important if numerous people make the same mistake — or if one person makes the mistake multiple times. There may be an underlying structural problem — with the method, tools, distractions of the environment, or sequence of events — rather than just the human ignorance, weakness, or inattention we typically assume is the problem.

Onward and upward,


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