Hand Wiping Blackboard Clean

Help everyone learn from mistakes

How to react to mistakes and reduce their frequency 

Written by Dr. Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Hand Wiping Blackboard Clean

What is your reaction to mistakes? Do your staff fear the consequences of even a minor error of judgement? Or do you and your entire team learn from the experience?

We would all be very naïve if we felt we could create a mistake-free workplace.

Even with the most rigorous processes and monitoring regime, we seem to have an innate ability to get it wrong, to lose concentration or miss changes in the environment that make it impossible to do what we have always done.

And, despite our hope that we could blame just a few non-performers for all the mistakes, we are all guilty of making mistakes with disturbing frequency.

So how should we react?

Assuming the mistake is not life- threatening or catastrophic, the first reaction should be to under-react. A calm, considered response in the initial stages whilst you are gathering information is always going to be better than a massive over-reaction to what could turn out to be trivial.

Your staff ’s observations of you will be especially heightened in these initial stages. They will not only be watching for a response to the current events but they will also be gathering data to help them assess what to do the next time the same or similar mistake occurs.

Safety incident reporting declines rapidly in organisations that take a hard, negative line on lost time accidents. This decline is often not because the workplace is inherently safer, it’s just because staff don’t report the incidents as conscientiously as before out of fear of the consequences.

Taking a more positive response to the reporting of lost time accidents may ruin your department’s safety figures but you will have a safer place to work than elsewhere.

If you do manage to create a largely mistake-free work environment, then you are also likely to have created a risk averse, static workplace. Such a workplace can be highly effective in times of little or slow change.

In more dynamic times, this can expose the organisation to the risk of rapid decline because it is nearly impossible to transform from a risk averse mode of operating to one that is highly responsive and adaptable to the external pace of change.

So, the challenge is to find a balance between striving to reduce the severity and frequency of mistakes, and encouraging staff to extend themselves, to innovate and try new ways of operating.

How a debrief can help

One way to do this is a semi-formal debriefing session when a mistake has occurred and everything is back to normal. By gathering the people involved directly in the event and any other important people who have a stake in the outcome, you have an opportunity to benefit from the mistake in both the short and long term.

The key to these sessions is to make the purposes very clear. Each session should answer these three questions:

•   What did we learn from this event?
•   What needs to be done to prevent or reduce the risk of it happening again?
•   Are there any lessons for other activities or other parts of the organisation from this event?

Clearly you are not going to go to this effort for every minor issue. However, making the time and effort, and being true to the purpose of the sessions for significant events will send clear messages about the drive to learn from our mistakes and reduce their frequency and severity in the future.

One small step in the next 24 hours

Tell your senior team about your intention to have these debrief sessions to review mistakes should they occur.

Emphasise that the purpose is not to punish or blame the perpetrators, but to build a desire to learn continuously from what we do well and what we get wrong.

Having the support of your senior team members will be essential to build confidence amongst the staff and drive the purpose of these sessions.

Then, look for the first opportunity to have a debriefing session. If your organisation is in any way typical, you won’t have to wait long.