Why We Don’t Correct Mistakes Right Away

American football quarterback attempting to throw ball as opposing players close in during competitive game, side view

The 10 commandments of continuous improvement are a set of precepts that guide lean behavior. One of the commandments is “if it’s a problem, stop and fix it”.  This is also phrased “correct mistakes right away” or variations thereof. When combined with commandments “find root causes” and “seek simple solutions”, we are assured lean behaviors and results. Out of context, “correct mistakes right away” can be misunderstood to mean just “take action”. This can lead to non-lean behaviors such as band-aids or solution-jumping.

Even when these commandments are understood as a whole and in context, it is difficult for people to “correct mistakes right away”. In the face of mistakes, failures, problems, and poor performance, we see leaders in all walks of life making excuses,engaging in happy talk or wading into a vast Egyptian waterway. Small problems linger on and become worse because people don’t correct mistakes right away. I believe this is because the commandment begins with “when you find a problem…” or “if it’s broken…” “Right away” is delayed because it takes people time to see the problem, even to admit mistakes and accept that things are broken.

Last week a Wall Street Journal article argued that National Football League team general managers should cut bait on quarterbacks who are not performing, even if the quarterback was a high draft pick or is highly paid. But they do the opposite. Hal Arkes, an Ohio State psychologist recognizes the NFL quarterback conundrum to be a classic example of the problem with sunk costs. In business, sunk costs should never be part of decision-making because they are costs the cannot be recovered.  If a high draft pick has been used on a quarterback who is a bust, the only rational course of action is to take no heed of costs already sunk into that QB, and correct the situation in order to avoid future losses. According to the article NFL team executives act irrationally and don’t correct their mistakes right away, even doubling down on their mistakes.

Arkes remarks, “there’s no reason whatsoever to keep the person unless you value your reputation more than you value the success of the team.” If the manager admits a mistake, it is not only embarrassing but may erode the manager’s credibility as a decision-maker. A combination of loss aversion and social threat from fear of embarrassment cause people to act irrationally. When people are afraid of admitting and correcting mistakes right away, the result is problems that linger and worsen. When leaders fail to recognize and correct this situation, it builds an organizational culture that fails to innovate or to adapt to change. Before long this leads to decline.

Whether a city council addressing local social issues, a plant manager addressing quality issues, or a Seattle Seahawks staff constructing an offensive line, the shortest and least painful path is the one paved with reality. Correcting mistakes right away means taking a hard look at the facts, factoring sunk costs out of decision-making, and containing the problem in the short-term and addressing root causes at the system level. It takes courage.

1 Comment

  1. Margaret F Nitolo

    September 25, 2016 - 10:02 am

    We see this all the time in a variety of industries. Managers refuse to allow the team that they run to fail. This refusal leads to behaviors which cover up the problems that exist. In their effort to make the numbers look right at the end of the day true problems are not revealed and corrected quickly. This leads to wasted resources and time. It will also de-moralize a team as they see shortcuts or corner-cutting being rewarded and a failure in accountability leading to continuing problems.