Just a few quick notes about Michael Frese’s talk, “Learning from Errors by Individuals and Organizations.”
Frese gives a rule: “You make about 3-4 errors per hour no matter what you’re doing.”
If errors are so ubiquitous, maybe it makes more sense to train people to deal with errors, rather than to try to flush out every possible error. Frese and others have studied this phenomenon in the lab. They found that error management actually led to improved performance on computer training tasks: if you are trained to expect errors and deal with them, you do better on the task. There are limits to this approach; in general, the more complex the task, the more important it is to focus on error management rather than just avoiding errors.
They also found that feedback is important: If you have clear feedback, it’s better to learn from errors than proscriptive training. If clear feedback isn’t provided, then learning from errors isn’t as effective.
Frese is an organizational psychologist, and for him the key is results. Small businesses do better — in real, financial terms — when their owners say they adapt well to mistakes. The killer stat from his talk: 20 percent of variability in corporate profitability is determined by error management culture. If a company focuses on managing errors rather than simply avoiding them, it’s significantly more likely to be profitable than a company that focuses only on avoiding errors.
An interesting question from the audience: What if you’re running a nuclear power plant? If an error is catastrophic, then how can you ever learn from it? Frese responded that he’s actually consulted with power companies running nuclear plants. He said that errors inevitably occur, even in these situations. A company can take two approaches to errors when they occur — sweep it under the rug while repairing the damage, or attempt to learn from the error and work on approaches to better handle such errors in the future. For him, the latter approach is still preferable, even when errors can literally mean the difference between life and death.