The Quality-Culture Connection: Embrace Errors to Achieve Great Results

It’s hard to admit when we’ve made a mistake. We’re not happy with ourselves when we make then, and we tend to be concerned that others won’t be happy with us either. We’re also reluctant to call others out when they mess up. After all, anyone can make a mistake, right? It just seems rude to point it out.

But this reluctance to admit mistakes can wreak havoc on a quality program. In fact, this is one of the biggest barriers to successful quality program implementation.

It doesn’t matter which quality program you use – Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, ISO, or one of the many industry-specific quality standards – the greatest challenge to successful quality system implementation is to get the organization to not only admit mistakes, but to notice mistakes, volunteer information about mistakes, and even celebrate mistakes.

Creating a quality result means creating a quality-focused culture. But before you can get to quality, you usually need to break a few bad cultural habits.

The Fear Factor

The main reason people don’t identify and volunteer information about mistakes is fear. Fear of looking bad and fear of consequences. The only way to battle this fear is with culture. Businesses that create a culture of acceptance of mistakes, and that are not perceived to be punitive when it comes to making mistakes, ultimately make a lot less mistakes.

This requires training and a lot of communication. Inside every working adult is every layer of every age and role they have ever been. So a manager who was parented by highly critical parents, who competed with a sibling for favor, who can’t forgive herself for failing a class in college, or who was fired by a volatile manager, may be highly intolerant of mistakes made by her employees. If a manager is intolerant of mistakes, then the Emperor Has No Clothes Effect occurs – people only tell the manager what she wants to hear.

Of course, what the manager should want to hear is about the problems that are occurring. She can only fix the problems if she is aware of them.

So managers require training – and a certain amount of self-awareness – to learn how their reactions to problems determine whether or not their employees and peers will trust them enough to bring problems to their attention. Managers must learn how to embrace mistakes as opportunities, and teach their teams how to use each mistake to improve processes, increase team knowledge, and deliver genuine customer care.

Shoot the Messenger

In some environments, the person who brings up problems is treated like a trouble-maker, or deemed to be negative. Of course, there’s nothing negative about reporting a problem, but because problems make people feel uncomfortable, they feel negative, so we tend to react in a negative way when we hear about them.

If a business has a culture of shooting the messenger, guess what? That’s right – nobody brings up problems.

To solve this, a business must cultivate a culture that rewards people for bringing problems to light, and acknowledges the value of knowing about problems.

Abandoning the Perfectionist Mindset

At the heart of most problem-averse environments is a misconception that perfection is a possibility. Yes, we can aspire to 99.999% quality – and achieve it – but there will always be something to improve upon, and errors will continue happen from time to time.

If the only thing worth celebrating is perfection, then a company will fail to recognize the exciting potential to be found in errors and opportunities for improvement.

Quality-oriented business cultures promote enthusiasm about change. They recognize how much we must change just to keep up with changing customer demands, evolving technologies, and expanding industry knowledge, and embrace the advances that come with constantly searching for those opportunities.

Embracing Continuous Improvement

Once you accept that change drives performance improvement, the culture is ready to embrace continuous improvement as one of the most important drivers of success. Every single error provides opportunity for evaluation and study. Evaluation leads to insight – even aha! moments – that can help an organization leap ahead of its competition. When a business creates a culture committed to this cycle of error, evaluation, insight, and improvement, it becomes very difficult to compete with.

It’s not enough to tell people they must report errors. Managers must model error reporting behavior, including acknowledging when the mistakes are their own. They must demonstrate tolerance for errors, as long as people are trying their best and learning from mistakes. They must welcome the reporting of mistakes and acknowledge that each reported mistake could be the one that catapults the company to the front of their competition. With practice, error-reporting becomes embedded in the culture, and the company’s quality initiatives can achieve their full potential.


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