Continuous learning and growth are a common theme for this newsletter and one that is the focus of a terrific book by Matthew Syed “Black Box Thinking
”. Syed explores in this book exactly what makes an organisation continuously get better at what it does. He compares the health and airline industry’s as polar opposites. One makes preventable mistakes that kill people at the rate of two jumbo jets crashing every 24 hours, the other didn’t have a single fatality in commercial service in 2017! How is it that the health industry is able to continue to deny improvements?
Black Box Thinking (BBT) can be summarised in one
, deceptively simple sentence: learning from mistakes. This is the methodology of science, which has changed the world precisely because it is constantly updating its theories in the light of their failures. In a complex world, failure is inevitable. The question is: do we learn, or do we conceal and self-justify?
Much of BBT is about techniques of learning, such as randomised control trials, iterative design, rapid prototyping, breaking a problem into its component parts to remove confounders, marginal gains, as well as the dynamics of pathfinding innovation, in theories or technology. It also probes the psychological and cultural reasons why improvement can be thwarted, with extended discussions of cognitive dissonance, blame culture and fixed mindset.
The ‘error paradox’ was first discovered in healthcare, where it has been found that hospitals that report the most errors and near misses are the safest. How so? Because the hospitals that are open and honest about their mistakes learn the lessons, and make reforms to ensure the same mistake never happens again.
Hospitals that report fewer errors look safe on the surface. They seem as if they are on top of things. But a deeper analysis (either through inspection or objective measurement) reveals that they make more errors overall. The reason they report so few errors is not because they are safer, but because they are covering them up or obfuscating them.
Syed highlights that learning from mistakes has two components:
The first is a system. Errors can be thought of as the gap between what we hoped would happen, and what actually did happen. Cutting - edge organisations are always seeking to close this gap , but in order to do so they have to have a system geared up to take advantage of these learning opportunities…each system has a basic structure at its heart : mechanisms that guide learning and self - correction.
Yet an enlightened system on its own is sometimes not enough … Mechanisms designed to learn from mistakes are impotent in many contexts if people won’t admit to them. It was only when the mindset of the organisation changed that the system started to deliver amazing results .
Looking to a different industry, mistakes and how you handle them are a common them in the enjoyable food industry book by Danny Myer “Setting the Table”
. Myer discovered in his early days running a now monolithic food empire in New York that his quest for perfection was significantly hampering the business from making improvements.
The problem wasn’t that I naively believed in perfection. Perfection is impossible in business. As a company policy, the notion of perfection can be dangerous, and the folly of pursuing it can stunt your team’s willingness to take intelligent risks. How could I expect my staff to create “legends of hospitality” if they were playing it safe by trying to avoid mistakes
“The definition of business is problems.” His philosophy came down to a simple fact of business life: success lies not in the elimination of problems but in the art of creative, profitable problem solving. The best companies are those that distinguish themselves by solving problems most effectively. Indeed, business is problem solving. As human beings, we are all fallible. You’ve got to welcome the inevitability of mistakes if you want to succeed in the restaurant business—or in any business. It’s critical for us to accept and embrace our ongoing mistakes as opportunities to learn, grow, and profit.
Myer talks about how mistakes uncover ways to continuously improve the business:
Learn from the mistake. Use every new mistake as a teaching tool with your employees. Unless the mistake involved a lack of integrity, the person who made it has actually helped your team by providing you with new opportunities to improve.
The worst mistake is not to figure out some way to end up in a better place after having made a mistake
the tragedy of cognitive dissonance.. It allows good , motivated people to harm those they are working to protect , not just once , but again and again . To put it a slightly different way , the most effective cover - ups are perpetrated not by those who are covering their backs , but by those who don’t even realise that they have anything to hide .
maps out some tools to build a culture where mistakes are freely admitted, reviewed and systematically improved upon