*Reader warning: as this blog post will require some thinking and possibly learning.

When a system is stable, telling the worker about mistakes is only tampering. – W. Edwards Deming

Not long ago, I observed a manager informing workers about their mistakes.  Explaining in a calm tome about the types of mistakes that were coming out later in the process.  Workers intently listened and there were promises to do better.  Later, I asked the manager how often these mistakes occurred.  She replied, “all the time.”

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Although I have seen managers try to end mistakes through training, software edits, mistake-proofing, etc. I rarely find they understand the source of these mistake.  A manager and anyone else wanting to reduce mistakes must understand variation.  If you do not understand variation you may want to read this post (Service Metrics: What You Need to Understand) to give you some clue before reading on.

Too many managers treat mistakes as if each one is a special cause, when they are being produced predictably by the system (structure, work design, measures, technology, etc.) that they work in.  The use of control charts is the ONLY way to know whether the system is stable or not.  In service industry I rarely find many special causes with regards to mistakes, when I do I may find a new worker in training or an unusual circumstance that that worker already knows about.

However, when mistakes are predictable (between the limits) and the result of a stable system, more training and/or more communications about them will do no good.  In a stable system, the focus on the worker is misguided.  Systemic changes are needed to eliminate the mistakes.  Wishing, begging, inspecting or imploring workers will do no good.

Systemic issues have to be corrected in the design and management of the work.  Too many managers see the system as something they can’t control (too hard to do for department-separated service organizations) and instead turn to the one thing they can control . . . the worker.  The worker becomes frustrated, morale falls and business improvement is not achieved.

Systems that workers work in need management . . . workers, not so much.  Understanding the nature of these systems and aligning them with customer purpose almost always leads to breakthrough performance and innovation leadership.  The only time it doesn’t is when organizations give up.

To improve systems requires experimentation with method (innovation).  This requires that we derive measures associated with customer purpose (what matters to customers).  All of this requires a different approach to how we handle mistakes.

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Make the new decade a profitable and rewarding one, start a new path here.  Download free from www.newsystemsthinking.com “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about how to get started at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt.