A Culture of "Mistakes"

While working 2nd shift at Toyota I took the opportunity to eat lunch with my son at his school. As the kids were lining up to go back to class, another father had the following conversation with his son:

Father: Do you have any tests today?

Son: *nodded his head*

Father: You are going to get a 100%, right?

Son: *nodded his head again*

Father: That’s my boy, O’Doyle’s* only get 100%!


*Full disclaimer here, I do not actually remember the last name of this family, but bonus points if you get the movie reference.


I was speechless. Not knowing if my son had heard the conversation or not, but also not wanting to leave the situation unaddressed if he had, I turned to him and said,

“Son, we don’t always get everything right. Sometimes we make mistakes. That is ok, as long as we learn from them.”

I didn’t make this statement loud enough for the other father or son to hear. It wasn’t my intent to publicly state my disagreement, it was my intent to help my son understand that everything won’t always be “perfect”.

One of my favorite quotes from Taiichi Ohno, frequently regarded as the father of the Toyota Production System, is:

“We are all humans and we are wrong half of the time.”

I believe that Taiichi Ohno stated “half of the time” to illustrate a point more than to quantify the actual rate at which we all make mistakes. This statement isn’t a carte blanche excuse to accept mediocrity. Even though none of us are perfect, perfection is still the target we should aim for. Continuous Improvement, a little at a time, is our goal.

Ultimately, the difference between the father in my story and myself, was the culture we were fostering with our children. I want my son to feel pressure to succeed, but not to the extent that it stifles his ability to grow. Everything should be a continual Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. To truly learn, we must be availed the opportunity to make mistakes. In this situation, “failure” is merely a perception. You won’t truly “fail” unless you stop making incremental improvements. The other father was teaching that everything is Pass/Fail, there is no in-between, and as such, there is no opportunity to grow. There are only “Winners” and “Losers.”

A recent news story covered the turmoil within an iconic organization that ultimately resulted in the sudden resignation of the President. What struck me most concerning the apparent dysfunction of this group was a story about the reaction of the President to a mistake from a staff member of more than 20 years. Apparently, the staff member made a mistake significant enough that they were called into the President’s office. During this meeting they were essentially told by the President, “Mistakes are not allowed. I don’t make mistakes! If this happens again you will be fired.”

The article goes on to explain that this specific employee was so affected by this statement that they were prescribed anxiety medication, received therapy, and eventually quit. It isn’t that one mistake cost them their job, it is that the culture didn’t allow for growth after a mistake. In any Lean initiative, it needs to be understood that mistakes will in fact happen. They don’t define the situation, or the people involved, they merely act as a means to grow and learn more about the opportunity at hand.

Please realize that if your reaction to mistakes creates a culture of fear, eventually your team will stop trying altogether.  If your employees aren’t trying, you aren’t growing.  And in business, you are either growing or dying. 

So, how do you create a culture of mistakes while also maintaining accountability? It obviously isn’t acceptable to only get things “right” half of the time. Any company that tolerated a 50% defect rate wouldn’t stay in business for very long. As with most things, there isn’t necessarily a “magic bullet” answer to this question, but there are three key things that will help you on your own journey.

1)      Create Standards: An employee cannot be held accountable for an ill-defined process. If you want to prevent people from making mistakes, clearly let them know the expectations for the task. Another favorite paraphrase from Taiichi Ohno is that “Without a standard, there can be no improvement.” This leads to the second point.

2)      Perform Root Cause Analysis & implement Countermeasures: Every employee that makes a mistake must have the opportunity to learn from it. This is accomplished by completing a 5 Why/Root Cause Analysis with them to determine what happened. At Toyota, with every caught defect, an employee would sit down with a Team Leader and they would determine a 5 Why/ Root Cause for two questions: 1) Why did they make the mistake? and 2) Why did they allow the defect to be passed on? Ultimately, they would derive a countermeasure to prevent this specific employee from repeating the same error, but often, this would lead to further improvements to the process or Standard Works to prevent others from repeating the mistake. This way not only is the employee learning, but so is the entire team.

3)      Track and communicate “Mistakes”: While lessons learned may be valuable to an individual, it is necessary that the team at large be informed as well. Very few things in life are individual based, most are dependent on a team. Therefore, it does not make sense to withhold beneficial information from others, and that means across shifts as well. If first shift employees learn from a mistake, they should pass that on to second shift and vis a versa. By visibly tracking said improvements on a run chart, for example, the entire team can quickly see how they are progressing and improving as a collective.

No one likes to make mistakes. Your culture however will go a long way in dictating how mistakes are handled. Will they be covered up, ignored, or lead to an environment of fear? Or, will they be used to learn and to grow? The choice is entirely up to you.