The concept of continuous improvement is present in all modern management standards. But why do so many organisations not learn from their errors?
The ISO 9001 Quality Management standard says this:
“When a nonconformity occurs, including those arising from complaints, the organisation must react to the nonconformity, and as applicable:
- Take action to control and correct it
- Deal with the consequences“
There can be many reasons for not reacting to errors. Typically, it’s because people don’t want to admit to making mistakes – the ones they have caused, the ones they have management responsibility for, or the ones they have been part of and consequently see themselves in a life-size game of Whack-A-Mole.
Many people in an organisation don’t have the courage to open up and stare the error in the face. But the organisation will miss out on relevant, important, and in some cases lifesaving information.
Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, in an article in Harvard Business Review (2015), claim that organisations don’t learn as much as they could. They show that there is a big potential for learning, but it’s dependent on leaders and organisations developing a culture that is brave and that dares to make mistakes.
In the article named ‘Why Organizations Don’t Learn’, they underline that many organisations develop a culture that is fixated on only celebrating success. This means employees fear failure, discouraging them from contemplating ideas and options. There’s a tendency to aim for conformity by encouraging everyone to ‘fit in’. The bias towards experts and inadequate involvement of frontline employees further narrows the pool of ideas.
Especially significant for me is the overt celebration of success which risks developing a complacent culture and an organisation resting on its laurels.
We’re faced with the paradox that when an organisation is trying to generate success and become more effective and efficient, it can lose its potential for learning and development.
Errors are here to stay, and they will not get smaller when we try to sweep them under the carpet. It is not about avoiding errors, but it is about speaking about them. Leaders must leave behind the ideal of being heroic and infallible and instead focus on promoting a culture where it is acceptable to err and where openness and humility are celebrated.
You should also note that no quality management system – certainly not an ISO 9001 system – marks you down for making mistakes. The purpose of a system is quite the opposite – you just need to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Only by doing this will your system meet its potential.
It might be cheaper and easier, in the short run, to ignore failures. But a short-term approach like this will limit the organisation’s ability to learn and prosper in the future. There are many different ways to learn from nonconformities, but it is impossible to learn if you don’t know they exist.