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If you’re struggling to drive continual service improvement, it may be because there are cultural barriers to overcome.

Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.

– Vernon Law, major league baseball player

People make mistakes. All people. Mistakes are part of gaining experience and are a triggers for learning: Now we know there’s a problem. How do we fix it? What are the lessons learned? A mistake is only really a mistake if you make it twice…because you haven’t put in the effort to learn the lesson.

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.

– Henry Ford

Analyse the mistake, focusing on the what and the how, not the who. Whoever made the mistake (it could have been anyone) has done you a favour by spotlighting an inherent problem or risk. Learn from it. Change how you do things. Move onwards and upwards.

Moving onwards is the easy part; doing so requires no additional effort. It is the moving upwards part that requires introspection; non-judgemental introspection. A problem is a challenge and a challenge is an opportunity. This is the continual improvement philosophy element; known in psychology circles as a growth mindset.


– Carol Dweck, Author of ‘Mindset’

Effective continual improvement relies on two things:

  • At the micro level—that of individual people—a growth mindset (an acceptance that it is both possible and necessary to develop over time).
  • And at the macro level—that of the organization—it requires a forgiving culture where mistakes are accepted as a part of life, not viewed as a catastrophe which triggers punishment.

Where an organizational culture doesn’t tolerate mistakes, people will cover them up, or simply avoid situations where a mistake could be made. This is unhealthy in two ways.

  • If the mistake is wilfully hidden to avoid punishment, there is no learning and no correction applied to the way things are done.
  • The underlying risk is hidden from management, which means their view of what is really happening is compromised, and decision-making is skewed.

This is why an aggressive corporate culture which punishes mistakes can drive an organization into the ground. Fear of making mistakes (or being held to account for making mistakes) is both paralysing and blinding. Innovation and creativity are discovery-type activities; they require a step outside the comfort zone into uncharted space. Once outside the comfort zone (the world of known risks), you are into a world of unknown risks. Most mistakes are made when you are moving forward into something new and unfamiliar.

A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.

– Will Durant, author, historian, and philosopher

So when you’re thinking about driving continuous improvement, remember that it’s not about installing a ‘CSI process’. It rests on a healthy human mindset and an organizational culture that is tolerant and promotes learning. Continuous improvement requires investigation, analysis, and learning. Every day. Give people room to move.

The people within an organization need to be empowered to spot weaknesses, call them out (without being considered judgemental), and work on them to make things better. If it doesn’t go well, they need room to try again—without taking a morale hit.

Most people appreciate the opportunity to do things in a better way. If you can remove the fear and give people a framework in which they can develop a growth mindset, continuous improvement will become a natural part of your corporate culture. And great things will happen quickly.

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