Making mistakes is better than faking perfections.

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’m arguing that a work environment where mistakes are forbidden and punished inevitably does more harm them good.

Your best teacher is your last mistake.

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.

“Whenever there is fear, you will get the wrong figures.” —W. Edwards Deming

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’s how we react to mistakes and to the people who make them, that determines our long-term success.

Those who never make mistakes work for those who do.

Let’s look at an 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!

How could the discrepancies disappear so quickly and so completely?

The fact was that 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.

“Be bold, make mistakes, learn a lesson, and fix what doesn’t work.” —Seth Godin

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.

More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying them.

I recall a story one Sr. Portfolio Manager 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’s 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.