No one likes to talk about their own mistakes. It is therefore all the more important that companies and superiors set an example of talking openly about it.
We are not perfect—neither we as humanity, nor I as an individual, nor RUBI Railtec as a company. The best example is this article. We had the idea for it months ago when we created a blunt error analysis of a project process we were involved in. "Great topic; I'm sure everyone has an opinion on this," I thought to myself and sent out a message in our group chat.
The result was sobering, to say the least. Only two colleagues agreed to speak anonymously about their own handling of mistakes and their experiences in working life. It would therefore be presumptuous to describe the following listicle as broadly based. Nevertheless, some things can be deduced from what was said—and even more from what was not said.
1. Companies are only human too
Organisations are made up of people. This makes it nothing but logical that they are not much different from individuals when it comes to dealing with mistakes. The awareness that every company starts from scratch in terms of error culture is an important realisation.
Yet errors—just like complaints—are actually a blessing for every organisation. They show unequivocally what we need to do differently.
2. Error culture needs rules ...
What is a mistake anyway? I would suggest at least two categories. If someone (consciously or unconsciously) breaks an applicable rule, that person is making a mistake. Similarly, we can identify error in retrospect if something has turned out to be wrong. Wrong decisions are therefore also possible without applicable rules.
Error culture, on the other hand, necessarily needs rules. "A planning project was not handled by the 'Planning' team" was one of the examples in the RUBI group chat. In our case, this feedback has led us to try to assign large and small projects more precisely according to the "purpose" of our teams. From what was perceived as inaccurate handling, a rule emerged to which we can adhere in the future—very similar to Kaizen.
Large project organisations were mentioned as a general negative example in our chat. They break rules even on the organisational chart since they are often completely separated from the usual organisation as companies within companies. Besides, part of the purpose of large projects is to find new ways and to do things deliberately differently. Perhaps this loose handling of existing rules prevents their error culture.
3. ... but not every rule improves error culture
As an SME in a dynamic market, we only want to have as many rules as necessary. Many of us have experience in large corporations and know that too many rules are neither conducive to work nor to a culture of error.
"You shouldn't have planned in 3D," a RUBIan was told in a previous job. "We have always worked only in 2D. There's a checklist for that. That's clearly your mistake." We, on the other hand, think it's a mistake to hold such rules higher than what moves the company forward.
4. Change is the Only Constant
As the world and society change, so does the perception of mistakes. What used to be okay can be a mistake from today's perspective—ask the residents of Kölliken (the site of a hazardous wastefill that took years and cost millions to be cleaned) or the neighbours of the Sihlhochstrasse (a highway bridge built above a river in Zürich), for example.
On the other hand, today we as individuals and companies dare to take steps into the unknown that would have been considered a mistake in the past. Quitting without having the next job already lined up or taking a new path in the second half of one's career were unthinkable a few years ago, but are becoming more and more common today.
The financial crisis, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic have shown us how fragile the status quo can be—so fragile that, in many respects, it is a mistake to gamble that nothing will change.
5. What is our yardstick?
Error culture is not an end in itself. Managers must be aware of what they want to achieve for the company with the given culture. Zero tolerance only makes sense in areas where it effectively exists—for example in the safety of structures and rolling stock or in tenders.
In many other areas, it is enough to do more right than wrong—be it in consulting or even in project management. For organisations under construction, it might be sufficient to avoid only the one mistake that causes the project to fail.
If a company is striving for certification, it is important to also design the processes of the error culture in such a way that they comply with the specifications.
At RUBI Railtec, we try to live up to the fact that errors occur as soon as decisions are made. We therefore try to establish our error culture as follows: We make mistakes—but do not repeat them. Accordingly, we encourage each other to talk openly about what went wrong and to derive measures from it so that it will work next time. In this way, we continuously practise making good decisions.
6. How efficient are we?
Just as important as the question of how many mistakes we make is the consideration of how much we invest in avoiding and dealing with them. Our employees say that they have learned the most about their own mistakes and those of others from extreme situations such as conflicts and dismissals. It also makes sense for companies to invest the most time in dealing with bad decisions that have serious consequences.
Since it is a well-known fact that small fry also make a mess, another viable way is to streamline the processing of mistakes. Often, all those involved know what went wrong right from the beginning of the discussion. The quicker this can be accepted and documented, the more efficient it is. But beware: certain people need more time than others to talk about mistakes. Overrunning them with too much speed is definitely a mistake.