Creating the High-Trust, Blame-Free Company
The legal philosopher Joel Feinberg says that creatures use blame to “stain” things, marking them as harmful. Blaming is an essential adaptive strategy, he says—reflexive and primitive. I believe we can train ourselves to stain something other than our fellow workers and those who manage our work. A poor, inadequate, or missing process fails more than our workers. We need to stain poor, inadequate, or missing processes as harmful.
Blame Creates Fear
As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” When fear and blame are allowed in the workplace it creates concern. Some say that a little fear is good. I don’t think our companies will function to their full potential if they cultivate a little fear. Modern psychology tells us that there is no such thing as healthy fear. Fear robs people of their potential and is a barrier to and impedes individual and company performance. Fear-based outcomes are usually negative, and in most cases they affect both the company’s and the individual’s quality of life.
Intentions Are Key
Let’s discuss intent as the driver of actions we must take when workers don’t follow program standards, procedures, and policies, or when they misrepresent customer needs. All work is a process, and process fails more often than the workers do. People do not come to work intending to do wrong. You know, high-fiving in front of the truck, saying, “Let’s go in today and screw up this house.” When something goes wrong, we often look for the person responsible for the defect. We all have considered how good the job would be if it weren’t for those darn workers. When something goes wrong, we must first look at our process to see whether, and how, it allowed the defect to happen. Then there are times when blame must fall on the people doing the work. If the wrongdoing was intentional, we must hold someone accountable and assign blame. We must always strive to make sure that we stop and consider: What was the intent at the moment when something went wrong?
The issue of volition is fundamental to the notion of doing wrong; therefore, the term bad behavior can only be applied to intentional actions. We cannot allow these intentional actions to go unattended, with little to no response. Rewarding bad behavior will only encourage more bad behavior. Intentional wrongdoing must be dealt with swiftly and eliminated. It is like an infection. Left unattended, it will spread. When I discover a rat, I first try to prevent it from getting into my house. If it gets into my house, I buy a cat. The cat’s job is to kill the rat. No cat? I’ll buy a trap. Trapping rats is a noble task. Intentional wrongdoing (deceitfulness, stealing, cheating) is a rat eating away at our bottom line.
Mistakes that prevent the work from going as intended (slips or lapses of attention) or from achieving the desired objective, are actions undertaken with no intent to do wrong. These mistakes call for prevention processes and mistake-proofing tools. We have all run out of gas because we forgot to fill up the gas tank; we have all slipped and cut our hand while preparing food. We’ve all made a mistake. All these actions were undertaken without intention. We hope that none of them will recur. But hope is not enough. We must set about taking actions that will prevent these mistakes from recurring. Quality control and quality assurance persons must fully understand how these mistakes come about. We must prevent mistakes, slips, and lapses of intention from causing defects. Not knowing how to do a task but trying, only to make a mistake and cause a defect, is unintentional wrongdoing. The way to prevent this from happening is to train workers properly.
I hope we will pay more attention to creating a culture of prevention—a culture that prevents unintentional wrongdoing. A culture of prevention takes place at the gemba, the Japanese word for where the work is done. Prevention at the gemba costs very little. Paying constant attention to intentional wrongdoing is expensive, because the results only come to light after the work is done, and discovering and correcting them involves the homeowner. It also steals our time and our peace of mind. I would rather go to bed tonight thinking about how to prevent mistakes from becoming defects than thinking about how to catch a rat.
Creating a Blame-Free Workplace
There cannot be quality improvement where fear is present. We need the workers who made the mistake at the table where we design the prevention. E.W. Demining said, “There cannot be quality improvement where employees are afraid to tell the truth.” Therefore, we must create a workplace where no blame is given for mistakes. Our task is great, but if we create a blame-free workplace, we will soon see two things increase. Those two things are worker loyalty and customer loyalty. Customer loyalty comes from loyal workers, and workers who are afraid will not be loyal. If our workers are not loyal, we cannot expect them to create loyal customers.
A blame-free workplace creates high trust on the part of workers and customers alike. And high trust, in turn, creates a very profitable company.
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