I’ve got a friend who, on the first day of his new job, cost his company $100,000. He worked for an airplane refitting company and the story goes that he was told to compact some garbage. As he gathered garbage for compacting, one box in the refuse seemed odd to him so he asked someone about it. That person insisted that everything in the refuse pile was garbage.
So my friend compacted the ‘garbage’ which turned out to be a $100,000 airplane door. Yup, people were mad and it was tracked back to my friend who was understandably upset. He thought he was going to lose his job. Lucky for him the truth came out that he had asked about compacting the door and was assured it was part of the garbage.
Years ago, when I worked at a canoe/kayak store I was moving an 18’ kayak. The most efficient way to store these boats is to stand them on their nose sticking straight up in the air. At a height of 5’ 9” that means I’ve got around 12 feet of kayak sticking above my head as I move these things around. While kayaks aren't really that heavy, they are a huge lever.
One day about three months into my job I stood a boat up and let it rest against a row of boats already in place. As I turned away I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. It was the boat I had just stood up. I hadn’t tied the end of the rack up again just because I figured the boat was fine balanced as it was.
As I tried in vain to catch an $8000 carbon/kevlar, 18’ lever, all kinds of fear went through my mind. It hit the ground with a sickening crunch and my stomach flipped.
Sure, I had been there a few months and had proven myself to be a careful employee, good at my job. I knew the owners liked me and thought I did good work because they told me so regularly. But even with all this reassurance in the back of my mind I felt sick as I walked to the office to tell the owner that I had just dropped a boat.
While incentives and goals matter, the act of considered risk-taking itself needs to be rewarded, especially in the face of failure. Otherwise, people simply won’t take risks. - Work Rules!
In many organizations failure is seen as a bad thing. Even if the leadership advocates the ‘fail fast’ policy, the reality is that any failure is punished to some degree. Unfortunately, this has a chilling effect on any future innovation in your business.
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Most businesses want innovators. They want people who are going to come up with something new that will help the company earn more money. However, no one is going to stick their head out of the hole and attempt innovation if they know any degree of failure will result in punishment, even if it's subtle.
Failure should be celebrated. Failure should be embraced as a learning experience. As Thomas Edison is famously quoted:
I haven’t failed I’ve just found 1,000 ways that won’t work.
Instead of punishing your employees for failure you should be learning from the experience with an After Action Review. Now, making the same mistake twice -- without changing the approach -- is worthy of some accountability, because clearly nothing was learned from the first failure. You’re still not dealing with the failure, you’re dealing with the lack of learning that came from the first failure.
I’m happy to say that my friend didn’t lose his job on his first day. He kept his job because he had no way of knowing that he shouldn’t be compacting a $100,000 door. Unfortunately the person supervising him did lose his job. I say unfortunately, because instead of one person who’s always going to check the garbage first they could have had two people checking.
Of course both of those people would have also listened to a new employee if they second guessed compacting something.
When I walked into the office and told my boss I dropped a boat, he just said "Let's go take a look." When we took a look the boss said, “Yup, you dropped it” and we got one of the guys from the repair shop to look at it. It had a bit of damage but thankfully, it was mostly cosmetic.
The only real response from the owner was a question:
Him: So are you going to tie the ends of the racks?
Me: Of course! It was ….
Him: …Whoa! It’s okay. I’ve forgot to tie a rack too, it happens. Keep loading that trailer, don’t worry about it. Just remember to tie the boats in.
He could have responded with anger. But that would have likely meant that anytime I had to move a boat I would have called on someone to help me. Which would mean more cost to the company to have two people doing a job that was previously done by one employee.
He could have fired me, but then he would have had to look for a new employee to fill my space -- just as I was finally learning the ropes well enough that I wasn’t costing the company money every day I came in to work.
He did neither of those things. He acknowledged a mistake -- one that had been made before -- and told me to get back to work.
You can bet that every single person I trained in the warehouse heard about the boat I dropped and was admonished many, many times about tying the racks. After new people moved boats around I was back checking that the racks were tied. If they weren’t they heard about it and got my story again.
I haven’t worked there in years and yet when I go visit and talk to some of the people I know in the warehouse, I still tie up racks that aren’t secured.
Instead of losing out on an employee the business gained an employee that would always tie racks, and people I trained that would always tie racks.