Jun 18 2013

“Who’s fault is this?” is something pretty much everyone has heard at some point in their lives. At work it can lead to a devastating culture of blame leading to fear of action.

When we work in organisations that are constantly looking to find the “culprit” when something goes wrong we will naturally find ourselves avoiding doing anything that could possibly go wrong.

Nobody will want to be the one who makes the decision or takes action for fear of being blamed for the outcome if it goes wrong. Deming suggested 95% of all problems come from the system, not the people. Another blog  questions the validity of this in today’s economy, questioning whether people need to be free to innovate and whether systems restrict that ability.

I would argue that depends on what your system is designed to do. Either way, people will follow the system; Deming also suggested that a poor system will win every time over a good employee.

So if people are following the system, usually the one created by a management team or portion there-of, then is it their fault when things go wrong? One could say then that the managers are to blame – and much of this is where the blame game starts. We all know what rolls down hill, so when a manager gets blamed for something, it is only natural to want to push that onto someone else.

Blaming, at any level is bad for morale, bad for the organisation’s culture and generally bad for business. I would suggest that people do not make decisions or take actions with bad intent.

Jack Welch is quoted as saying “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” The only thing people learn when they are blamed for mistakes & errors is not to try. Don’t stick your head above the parapet or it will likely get cut off. Better to stay low, below the radar to ensure you don’t get blamed for mistakes.

On the other hand, Thomas Edison is quoted as saying “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work.” His mentality was to learn from the things that didn’t work as much as those that did. Learning in an organisation is essential, this will not happen when people are afraid to act, afraid to decide. When people do take that chance, if things go wrong, they and the organisation learn nothing other than not to take that chance again.

The next time someone makes a mistake, screws something up, why not look at why that happened from a systems point of view? What aspect of the system allowed that to happen? Did the system fail to clarify what was expected? Did it fail to provide sufficient instruction on how to do something? What lesson can we learn collectively from this mistake? If we learn nothing other than “don’t take chances”, what benefit is there to the company? Problems really are opportunities – to learn. Mistakes should be taken as opportunities to learn, not to blame.

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(2) Readers Comments


  1. Cameron Stark
    June 19, 2013 at 9:40 PM

    You're right - a focus on individual blame can stifle organisational learning. There is a balance, here, of course, but it's too easy to tip it towards the end marked 'individual error'. This is hard on the individual, but often feels like a clear solution. to the organisation. A neat solution like this can prevent us making the effort to reach the root cause of the incident, and so contribute to us losing the opportunity to learn.

    • ch53ecc
      June 19, 2013 at 10:14 PM

      I think it is either human nature to blame, or something we have learned throughout our lives (from our parents when we spilled the milk?) to the point that it is our default setting, and difficult to overcome. Thanks for the feedback! Cordell

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