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Learning from Mistakes

If your organization seeks punishment for every employee who makes an error, you are losing a learning opportunity and possibly also creating a toxic culture. In any warehouse, the workers who make the least mistakes are frequently also the least productive. Your fastest workers are likely to make a few errors, simply because it is their habit to move rapidly. Errors should be considered as a useful learning experience.

The best way to handle mistakes is to look for the cause, not for the blame. A few years before the Soviet Union collapsed, a logistics delegation spent a few weeks sharing ideas with managers who worked in distribution operations. The largest warehouse we visited was in Lithuania, and it was dark, dirty and overstaffed. We were told that there was a supervisor for each bay, and each of these men was held responsible for eliminating damage and shortages. If a discrepancy was discovered, that supervisor was financially penalized. It is doubtful that any of these people was paid well enough to ensure against errors. Therefore, it can also be assumed that when a damaged product was discovered, first it was hidden and then it was shipped to an unsuspecting party. Because the Soviet culture was based on punishment, normal activity was to hide mistakes in order to avoid being blamed for them.

You don't have to go as far away as Russia to find people who maintain a similar culture. When people are always punished for their mistakes, they are unlikely to try anything new. Admittedly, some errors cannot be tolerated, but many of them can and should be treated as opportunities to learn.

Some companies build a culture of innovation that rewards team members who try new things, even when they occasionally fail. How do you handle mistakes in your organization?


K. B. Ackerman Company
2041 Riverside Drive
Suite 204
Columbus, Ohio 43221
Phone 614-488-3165
Fax 614-488-9243

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