This weekend there were a couple of big, headline-making mistakes that occupied national news and social media feeds. The first, an erroneous message from the state of Hawaii indicating an inbound missile, represents a system error. The second, a missed catch by Saints safety Marcus Williams, represents a human error. Both categories, system and human, will occur in your organization on a daily basis. A learning organization adapts and improves from mistakes while a zero-defect organization rushes to place blame on an individual. This article provides thoughts for leaders facing failures, errors, or mistakes in any organization.
Like many other residents of Hawaii, I was shocked to see the warning on my iPhone Saturday morning. Chaos ensued and the alert rapidly became international news. It took about thirty minutes before a subsequent all-clear message was distributed. Later that day the state of Hawaii took ownership of the mistake. Apparently, a state employee selected “missile alert” in a drop-down menu versus “test missile alert.” This article from the Washington Post provides a good summary of the day as well as the system the state of Hawaii uses to distribute alerts. Though the governor of Hawaii, David Ige, took accountability and initiated organizational learning from the event, many placed blame on the state emergency employee, who was eventually removed from his position (article here).
Think about the last few simple errors that occurred in your organization. Maybe it was a staff duty officer who submitted an incomplete or inaccurate Serious Incident Report or an injury on a range due to ammunition mismanagement. How many examples popped into mind? If you are a battalion operations officer it was probably more than you can count. Now for an important question: what systems contributed to these failures? Organizational systems cannot prevent every error, but sound and well-maintained systems typically prevent routine failures or mistakes from occurring often. Excellent examples include Commander’s Critical Information Requirements regarding Serious Incident Reports and range standard operating procedures.
The next big headline this weekend was a missed tackle by Saints rookie safety Marcus Williams.
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 15, 2018
This play, in the last few seconds of the game, cost New Orleans a victory in a close game with the Vikings. Williams quickly became the butt of jokes on social media:
This mistake by Marcus WILLIAMS — missing that play on Stefon Diggs — May be the absolute WORST MISTAKE I’ve ever seen in NFL Post-Season History. If it’s not THE worst it’s certainly up there. All the man had to do is make a tackle and the game is over. Horrible, Horrible Error.
— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) January 15, 2018
Marcus Williams legit ducked under Stefon Diggs. What the hell was he doing?
— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) January 15, 2018
Williams’ missed catch provides a powerful example of human error where an elite athlete acted and failed in front of millions of fans and critics. Now think back to the last human error you observed in your organization. Examples could include a combat vehicle rollover or a platoon leader choosing a poor location for his support by fire. In an institution that prides itself on discipline initiative and action in the face of chaos, mistakes and bad decisions are going to happen. Learning organizations allow leaders to gain experience through failure. Returning to the example of Marcus Williams, he will likely never forget that missed tackle. Similarly, a young platoon leader will likely never forget lessons from failing during his first platoon STX lane.
Mistakes happen. Learning organizations analyze their mistakes and continuously improve themselves while zero-defect organizations rush to blame and instill a fear of failure in subordinates. Which type of organizational culture are you contributing to?