Making mistakes matters part 2: The organisational benefits of learning from failure.

My Dad losing his leg stump to one of the greatest fast bowlers, Wes Hall.

My Dad losing his leg stump to one of the greatest fast bowlers, Wes Hall.

This is the second of four articles on why we need to change our attitude towards failure and how it is important to peak performance.  This is to celebrate the launching of my new organisation PeakFlow.Zone and the first anniversary of the publishing of a book I had a hand in writing: Enabling Genius: a mindset for success in the 21st century.  The first article covered the personal and organisational benefits of flow, a mental state, heavily correlated to human contentedness, where we are completely focused.  This article focuses on the organisational benefits of embracing failure.  Different industries and organisations have widely divergent attitudes towards failure.  Evidence shows organisations can generate peak performance in their workforce by accepting failures happen, welcoming their identification and then learning from them.

In Matthew Syed’s latest book, he contrasts two industries’ accident rates. In 2005, in the UK 34,000 people were killed and there were 945,000 patient incidents in our healthcare system, all from preventable accidents.  In the US, on average 400,000 die from preventable medical accidents per annum.  That is the equivalent of two jumbo jets falling out of the sky daily.  Yet in 2013, there were 36.4 million commercial flights, carrying 3 billion passengers and only 210 died.  This works out at one crash per 8.3 million take offs.  And yet a century ago, just over 50% of US air force pilots died in crashes from mechanical failure.

What a difference!  I agreed with Syed that this largely results from differences in culture.  Those in the airline industry are not afraid to admit mistakes and there is solid process that then examines each of them to minimise the chances or reoccurrence.

There are bright spots though in healthcare, such as the Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle.  Senior management were looking for a way to reduce their accident rate.  Their big idea was to introduce a lean, continuous improvement process. The senior team had studied other industries in particular car manufacturers who had used the Toyota Production System. This allows any worker to halt production line if they see an error.  This is examined and changes introduced to stop it happening again.  And yet initially this process was a failure, few errors were reported so there was no improvement.  People were pathologically defensive and would not admit their mistakes.  This is human nature after all, but it is also a hallmark of the health service, in particular in the US, where medical suits are common and payouts large.  A tipping point occurred though, sadly due to an horrendous accident and finally attitudes changed.  Now staff feel empowered to report issues.  They created a psychologically safe environment and staff were finally unafraid of admitting mistakes.  As the reporting rate increased and procedures changed based on what was learned, so the number of lives saved increased. Today Virginia Mason is regarded as one of the safest hospitals in the world and its insurance rates have dropped by 70%.

Changing defensive cultures is hard, but the hospital case study shows not only does it save lives, but also saves money. The key is people and relationships, not processes or technology.  Creating a psychologically safe environment requires a different attitude between management and staff demanding respect for opinions from all levels to enable peak performance in the organisation.