While we all understand the importance of learning from our mistakes, we are in a society that tends to focus on learning from mistakes as opposed to learning from achievements.  This paper suggests that we have to learn to follow the path of achievement, not the path of failure.

Lessons Learned

Many progressive firms use ‘lessons learned’ as a follow-up to projects to ascertain how to do things better.  Most often, such follow-up provides lessons of what ‘not to do’.  And while this is progress – for it does make the situation better – it is not the model to follow to do the right things.  Why not?  Because, in any endeavor, the options for mistakes are infinite, whereas the options for doing things right are few.

Investigate Failure and Invert it

In the book First, Break All the Rules, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999) the authors, Buckingham and Coffman note that conventional wisdom says you should investigate failure and invert it. Such wise people would define excellence as zero defects.  You cannot infer excellence from failure by inverting it.  Why?  That is because excellence and failure are surprisingly similar.  Example: Both great salespeople and poor sales people have ‘call reluctance’.  The difference between greatness and failure in sales is that the great salesperson is not paralyzed by this fear.  Example: Good and bad waiters form strong opinions.  Good waiters use their strong opinions to complement the dialog, tailored to the client’s reactions.  Bad waiters are just rude.  Example:  Good and bad nurses form strong attachments to their patients.  Good nurses use it to comfort patients, whereas poorer nurses become overwhelmed with their emotional attachments.

Excellence is Not the Opposite of Failure   

 Of all the ways to perform a certain task, most of them are wrong.  There are only a few right ways.  It is a very slow path to come closer to the right ways by eliminating the wrong ways.  It is a much faster path to study what the best are doing right. You cannot learn about excellence by studying failure.  Excellence is not the opposite of failure.  There are thousands of road combinations from Ottawa to New York.  Only a few are efficient.  To find a good route, do you interview the many who took a long time, or do you interview the few that made the trip quickly? Excellence is different from failure.  It has its own configurations, which sometimes include behaviors that look similar to wrong behaviors (as noted with salespeople, waiters and nurses, above).   And so, the best road to New York might be through Albany, but so is one of the worst road combinations.

Zero Defects

 Zero Defects, TQM, Quality Circles and Business Process Reengineering all share the tendency of studying and dealing with the negatives as an object lesson of how do the positive – to do things right.  As stated above, you cannot take failure and invert it to achieve excellence.  As a consequence, these well-conceived and well-intentioned programs ran out of steam and favor over the long term. There is a second point to be illustrated here.  Fundamentally, you cannot impose higher system approaches, such as quality improvements, to succeed over the long haul, unless you first deal with the basics of human relationships issues and cooperation.

If employees’ lower-level needs remain un-addressed, then everything you do for them further along the journey is almost irrelevant.  But if you can meet these needs successfully, then the rest – the team building, the innovating and the quality goals – is so much easier.  While it sounds obvious, managers in most companies over the last fifteen years have been encouraged to focus much higher up – diversity training, self-directed work teams, total quality management, reengineering, etc.  These well-conceived initiatives were for the most part well executed.  But almost all have withered.  Five years ago the Baldrige Award for Quality was the most coveted business award in America – today only a few companies bother to enter. An important kernel of truth lay at the heart of all these initiatives, but none of them lasted.  Why?  They aimed too high, too fast.  Managers were encouraged to focus on complex initiatives without spending time on the basics.

Profits are Like Quality

 Profits, like quality, cannot be the primary goal.  The primary goal must be for the enterprise to do things right, to organize the huge intellectual capital of the company – its most precious resource – in a beneficial, progressive way.  Out of that will fall the proper quality and the proper profits.  To begin by seeking profits as the goal endangers the enterprise because it is looking at the wrong end first.  Of course profits can be improved!  All one has to do is cut here, cut there, adjust and tweak until the profits are achieved.  However, will this be the best course for the long-term interests of the enterprise?  If we cut out the new Harrisburg branch because it is losing money we will never be able to develop the known potential of Harrisburg that all our information tells us is there.  The right end is to seek to build the enterprise into one that meets its goals and serve its defined mission in a state of excellence.  From that course come long-term excellent profits.

 Study Your Best

 Within your own enterprise, instead of focusing on employees failures, study your best people.  As a manager, spend time with those good people.  Take time to learn the ‘whys’ the ‘hows’ and the ‘whos’ of the best.  Use this to guide others and to help you select similar talents in your hiring.

 Spend time with your best; learn from them.  It is the best way to investigate excellence.