Mistakes are Beautiful Things

By on October 27, 2015
Mistakes are Beautiful Things

About a year ago I was talking with a manager at one of our clients. He mentioned that a line worker named Bill had come up with a solution to a major problem that had plagued one of their bottling lines, resulting in many hours of lost production time. He told me that the plant’s maintenance team had worked on the line for over six months, trying to solve the problem. Their solutions never worked. They’d fix the bottler. It’d run for a week or so and then it would break down. And so the cycle would continue. Break down/Fix. Break down/Fix.

The manager told me that after about six months of this break down/fix cycle, Bill approached him and said that he had an idea about how to solve the problem. They gave Bill’s idea a try. It worked. Problem solved. The manager added, “I sure wish Bill would have come up with his fix six months earlier. It would have saved us a lot of lost production time.

The story the manager told me piqued my curiosity and I decided to talk with Bill about it.

Bill’s bottling line was operating perfectly as I approached. I told Bill what his manager had said about his role in fixing the problem with the bottling equipment. I told him that his manager had said that it was his deep understanding of the equipment that had enabled them to finally get the line up and running after six months of failed efforts. I added, “Your manager also said that he wished you would have come up with your idea six months earlier, that if you had it would have saved hours of lost production time.

Bill smiled wryly and said, “I did.” I replied, “Did what?” He said, “I knew what the problem was from the beginning. It took me six months to get up the courage to share what I thought with my manager.

I asked Bill, “But why didn’t you just tell your manager what you thought right away?” Bill replied, “I was afraid that my idea might not work, that it would be a mistake to try it.

I was afraid that my idea might not work, that it would be a mistake to try it. How many important insights into how to fix problems, how to improve work processes lay fallow because employees, perhaps your employees, believe that “they might not work”? In all too many workplaces the answer is thousands. Wasted knowledge. Wasted opportunities to improve work processes, to become stronger competitors.

All of these are by-products of the fear of making a mistake.

Several years ago I heard a lecture given by a professor in the physics department of a major university. One of the things he had said came back to me as I heard Bill’s story. The professor said, “I just love it when I find a mistake. Finding a mistake makes the day for a scientist.” I’ve told the story of the professor in a number of training sessions and it’s stimulated some very good discussions. Inevitably, the groups conclude that mistakes should be loved because it is only through the making of mistakes that work processes can be improved.

No mistakes. No improvement. It really is that simple.

The story Bill told me was a perfect example of what happens when workers are afraid to try out their ideas because “they might be a mistake.” On an individual level this kind of thinking stifles creativity, drives down employee engagement in the improvement of work processes, and damages morale. On the organizational level this type of thinking stands as a very real barrier to the company becoming a stronger competitor in its marketplace, placing its long term survival in jeopardy.

Want to prosper in your marketplace? Learn to love mistakes.

Lean thinking is all about learning to love mistakes and knowing how to effectively integrate the making of mistakes into powerful organizational learning opportunities. Our Corporate Services Group has a variety of well-tested, high impact training resources that will help your company learn how to rid your employees of the fear of making mistakes, that will help your first level supervisors and managers understand how to more effectively stimulate the creativity and knowledge of your line workers. As a result, they’ll make sure that guys like Bill don’t wait six months to share their thoughts on how to address workplace challenges.

I’d very much appreciate having the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. Call me anytime at 314-303-0612. I think you’ll find it time very well spent.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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