Most organizations we run across pay lip service to failure as a good thing. They claim they are Learning Organizations (Peter Senge, author of The 5th Discipline) and that they tell their people it is okay to make mistakes. Yet few, if any, really try to learn from them.
MOST organizations try to learn in the short term by fixing their mistakes. Few if any USE them as long term learning tools or record them for posterity.
In order to truly become a learning organization, you must learn as much from your failures as your successes. A child who grows up having to relearn not to touch a hot stove is going to have a very scared body. Likewise, an organization that does not record its mistakes and use them in their future trainings is leaving itself open to repeating those mistake. Painfully, it will be forced to relearn the same costly lessons again and again.
Here is a simple 3-step approach to capturing and using the mistakes that happen in your organization:
- Ask and reward. If you do not ask people to share the mistakes they made, very few if any will volunteer that they made mistakes. If you do not reward the sharing (not the mistakes), they will certainly never share any mistakes made.
But how can you reward a mistake? Simple. Do not focus on the mistake but on the sharing, the solution and on what was learned from the mistake. In other words, compliment the person for sharing. Then reward or reinforce the solution applied, thanking them for their ingenuity and finally, ask them what was learned and then reward / reinforce that learning.
That may be more attention than you give people who do things RIGHT. If so, your other reinforcement system is out of whack as well.
- Have your staff keep a LEARNINGS Journal. Each person should record in their own journal the lessons they learned from their own mistakes AND the lessons learned from others that they might not have thought of applying or using. No need to record the obvious. The problem is, what is obvious to one is usually oblivious to another.
The journals can be as simple as a spiral notebook or on-line as an Intranet board or BLOG. The electronic version has the advantage of more open sharing of what was learned and if people leave, their lessons were not lost.
Quarterly, have a short ‘Learnings’ meeting, A Learnings meeting is a ‘What I learned’ meeting where your people share the lessons they learned over the past 3 months. This is a very simple, ‘read from your journal’ exercise. Have each person share ONE idea and then rotate to the next. If time permits, have a second or third round of sharing. In between each sharing, invite comments on how that applies to what we are currently working on and plan for success by making sure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
- You start the sharing. This is one of the hardest things for any leader to do, particularly Asian leaders. Not that Asians lack the courage, it is because of both colonial mentality where 300 years ago it was, ‘just not done’ because the leaders must appear ‘perfect’ and the ‘saving face’ mentality of true Asian culture.
Whatever the reason, it makes sense to forgo the ancient history and start making current progress with your team by admitting you made a mistake or two. If you are unwilling to admit your failings, do not expect your team to share theirs.
As a side benefit, you may just find your team more willing to open up about everything when you are willing to share a bit of your humanity. A human leader is an approachable leader.
Suggestion: Finish each Learnings meeting with a 10 Step Plan Of Action (10 Step POA) where each person has their own list of action steps they will take to make progress on their projects. There is no magic to the number 10 and ‘lucky’ 6 or ‘fat’ 8 might work just as well. The idea is to have a people leave with written commitments as to what they will do better, take action on or how they will improve. Learning sessions should not be NATO (No Action Talk Only) sessions.
Recording and learning from our mistakes is a powerful way to improve any organsation, one-step at a time. The Japanese term Kaizan or ‘incremental improvement’ is dedicated to this philosophy but is rarely applied in this manner. We should be constantly correcting and getting closer to the best we can become. Learning from our past mistakes by focusing on what we learned from them can really propel our organizations into a more profitable future.
This article is authored by Michael A. Podolinsky CSP – Asia’s Productivity Guru, Developing Productive Leaders and Teams, equipping them with the skills necessary to succeed.
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