Diagnosing the Four Types of Mistakes

Diagnosing the Four Types of Mistakes by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Jdurham, Available at www.morguefile.com

Have you ever taken time to consider WHY people do the wrong thing? When something goes wrong our focus is usually on the effect of the mistake and how to control the damage. That’s important for the short term, but effective leaders also consider the long term and seek to answer “Why?” There are four answers to this question. Carefully diagnosing the Why leads to insights about individual and organizational improvement.

“I Didn’t Know”

Sherry placed an order with a raw materials supplier. A week later the rail car arrived but as the warehouse manager checked the manifest to receive the order, he realized it was not the material they needed for manufacturing and the correct materials were not on hand. This could have had serious repercussions in the relationship with this key customer! Further investigation revealed that Sherry ordered the material that was needed for a previous product design. Why did Sherry make this mistake?

Was she not trained properly? Was she not paying attention in the meeting that presented the new product design and materials? Did she miss the meeting?

There could me a multitude of reasons why Sherry didn’t know. Uncovering the actual reason will lead to the proper corrective action. Proper corrective action should ensure that Sherry not make the same mistake again. Proper corrective action should also look at the entire system to prevent this kind of problem from happening again.

“I Didn’t Understand”

In the scenario above, it is also possible Sherry didn’t understand the need to order a different material. It is possible that she didn’t understand the performance difference between the two materials and why the new product design needed a different material. Also, since the original material was less costly, she felt it would be a good choice.

Sometimes, “I didn’t understand” is associated with not realizing the context of a situation. Anyone who has traveled to other cultures realizes the importance of knowing local customs. Once, when traveling in Romania, I was about to ask a pregnant woman when she was due. One of my Romanian hosts saw the question forming in my mind and interrupted me. He quietly explained that in their culture strangers never discuss a pregnancy with the mother. Until that moment, I didn’t understand the full context of the situation.

“I Didn’t Care”

Perhaps the most dangerous type of mistake is “I didn’t care.” There are two types of “I didn’t care.” One is active, the other is passive.

Active “I didn’t care” mistakes are made by people who are apathetic, actively disengaged, or even hostile. These are frustrated, worn out, or disgruntled people. In terms of physical assets and life itself, this is probably the source of the most costly mistakes. We could argue that active “I didn’t care” mistakes are not mistakes at all – they are a form of attack and sabotage.

The passive form of “I didn’t care” is more subtle. These are mental lapses. We’ve all had moments in which we were mentally checked out. Perhaps some form of distraction, or physical or mental fatigue was present. “I didn’t care” may seem like a harsh label for these situations, but the truth is, for that one moment, that person cared more about something else than the job at hand. Unfortunately, the cost of the passive form of this mistake can be just as high as the active.

They have the same effect, but active and passive “I didn’t care” are also very different. Sound judgment is needed in discerning between the two.

“I Am Over Committed”

The final type of mistake is probably the root cause of any of the above, but it can also be a separate problem.

I don’t need to explain what over commitment is. Most leaders have experienced this. (Do I hear arguments that every leader has experienced over commitment?) The real problem with over commitment is recognizing it. Most of us do not realize when we are over committed. Until we recognize over commitment we cannot implement any long-term solutions. In the meantime, effectiveness will drop and you might (read: probably will) commit mistakes that fall into one or more of the categories above.

Along with the rest of my family, I attended a conference last weekend in Kansas City. There was a single comment that was worth the time and expense of the whole conference: “God supplies all the resources you need in order to do what he has called you to do.” In other words, if you are doing what God asks you to do and only what he asks you to do, you will never be over committed! Do you feel over committed? Perhaps you are doing things God hasn’t asked you to do.

Analyze the Patterns

As a leader, I challenge you to assess the kinds of mistakes you and others in your organization make. Take time to look for patterns. Do certain individuals make the same kinds of mistakes? Is there a common connection between a group of recent mistakes? Perhaps another person, department, or process is actually at fault. What kinds of patterns emerge across the organization? A preponderance of certain types of mistakes suggests a systemic problem that may be rooted in the culture.

It takes time to gather this kind of data and to evaluate it with wisdom. The results, though, can lead to tremendous, long-lasting organizational improvements.

What about you? What are the reasons you tend to make mistakes? How can you help your colleagues learn how to categorize their mistakes and learn from them?

Thanks go to “M.K.,” one of my Capella University PhD learners, for the idea for this article. We were recently discussing our systems and leadership theory class when she made a brief comment that there are only a few reasons that people do the wrong thing. Her list inspired and is similar to what you see above.

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