Error Culture – Easier Said Than Done

By Jan U. Hagen, ESMT Berlin

The opening of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) was canceled three weeks before the big opening celebrations scheduled for May 2012. The news blindsided the public. Until then, there had been no talk of deficiencies. Only gradually were the multiple problems – for example regarding basic fire safety regulations – revealed by those responsible. Those involved in the project had been well aware of the issues, but they had never spoken up. These deficiencies had to be subsequently remedied through painstaking and costly repairs. The airport was opened finally in October 2020 – a good eight years later, with an outdated infrastructure and additional costs that ran into the billions.

In academia and young startups, mistakes are accepted as part of a distinct learning culture. The inherent dangers posed by the lack of such an open error culture can hardly be illustrated more clearly and observed than it was by the unlucky passengers traveling to Berlin.

Thankfully, global companies are talking more about the benefits of a lived error culture. However, transferring this culture to the corporate world is difficult because no one there wants to admit mistakes, let alone cause mishaps or fail at work. When errors occur, the people involved are usually embarrassed. In the worst case, they have caused extensive damage and fear the consequences.

There is another way, though. A successful error culture means analyzing errors objectively and learning from them instead of punishing those who caused them.

Managers often express concerns that openly handling errors leads to carelessness, endangers quality standards, or are incompatible with company culture. However, to establish this culture, companies must be prepared to leave well-trodden paths and abandon fixed habits, which is never easy. In addition, the willingness to do so must exist at all levels, and implementation must be practiced until the change is accepted and its conditions have been internalized.

It would be useful for managers to look at the civil and military aviation sectors, where the constructive handling of errors has been practiced for years, if only for safety reasons. There, it is acknowledged that every crew member makes mistakes, regardless of their competence and experience and sometimes without realizing it. In such cases, the person who notices the error will point it out to correct the error before the situation becomes serious. This is both a top-down and a bottom-up process. Blaming and finger- pointing are not part of it. The relevant critical events in aviation are reconstructed in a comprehensible way and published in monthly reports, not to denounce those affected, but to let others learn from the mistakes. (To see such openness in practice, visit the US Naval Safety Command’s online publication Approach).

This does not mean that mistakes and failures in organizations should be accepted as inevitable; this would be looking at the situation improperly. Errors are unintentional deviations from goals, rules, and standards. While completing complex tasks and working under stress, the probability of errors increases significantly. But errors also occur while performing routine activities.

Since errors are unintentional deviations from the norm, the principle of error prevention is of little help. Not every error entails the failure of a larger process; this mostly involves a concatenation of errors. Errors (including rule violations) that are recognized in time can usually be corrected.

However, there are essential prerequisites for building a successful error culture. One, it requires that errors are discussed – something often lacking in our organizations. If at all, such discussions usually occur in private – top down or laterally – which prevents a comprehensive learning process from materializing. Two, it requires psychological safety. Elaborated by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, psychological safety means that employees or members of a team can make mistakes, show weaknesses, and express their opinions without fear of losing face or other disadvantages. Lastly, the error culture must be desired throughout a company and be allowed time to develop. Setbacks are not a reason to give up; they are a common feature on the path to success.

If we accept that human error is inevitable, openly addressing errors without fear – especially in high-risk organizations – is a must. Employee errors should neither be stigmatized nor sanctioned. Rather, the causes of errors must be analyzed and learned from. If mistakes are punished, it will lead to an organizational culture in which errors are swept under the rug for fear of the consequences. However, if a sanction-free error culture is timely practiced, sources of errors can be revealed and eliminated in a manner.

Paradoxical as it may seem at first glance, we can therefore state that an open error culture is a crucial building block for reducing project failures and serious errors and for increasing organizational success.

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