Last year we had a production management coach come in to spend a couple of days with us. This was a wonderful experience that helped better cement an already good set of production practices and get the team better on board for a process of continual improvement. But there was one bit of advice from the coach I disagree with. But first a little about our system of continual improvement.

This process includes debriefings after every job to identify problems and learn from them. Sometimes this learning involves identifying an individual’s mistake and providing better training for that individual.  More often, the learning involves identifying where in our system we can solve the problem.

We much prefer to find problems in the system rather than the individual because systems are more predictable than individuals. Being human, we all make mistakes. We build systems to avoid those mistakes.

The most common loci of repair are in what we call institutional memory. These are the subatomic parts of our system that are easily tweaked to fine-tune the overall system and its outputs.  For us, frequently tweaked institutional memory includes things such as checklists, subcontractor guidelines, specifications, our estimating system. Anything that stores information is institutional memory.

A key component of a process of continual improvement is a culture that allows  mistakes to be identified in a safe and nonjudgmental way. We must be free to look at our mistakes without fear, in order to learn from them. This does not mean that people should not be held accountable. They absolutely must be. If people are afraid of making mistakes they will be more invested in avoiding blame than finding solutions. This is a big part of accountability.

Making the system the primary defense against mistakes helps reduce the pressure on the individual and should help make it easier to find mistakes and look closely at them. As an example, I am very forgetful. If I am the source of accountability, we are very limited in how much we can improve. But by looking at the system, we can find ways to help me remember what is needed, such as making better use of the calendar and putting more detail into checklists. When I forget something, I may get angry at myself, but I do not look to myself for the solution. After all we already know that I am forgetful. I find the solution in the system. If a carpenter makes a sloppy cut, rather than blame him, we look to the system. How did we fail to make clear what an acceptable standard of quality was and how did our training system fail?  This is not to say that anyone can work within our system. People who do not care enough to learn the system and work toward improvement will not be here long. But by focusing most of accountability within the system rather than the individual, we can accommodate a wider range of skill levels and more easily develop those who care enough to strive for improvement. 

Caring is considered a necessary function of the system as well as the people who work in it. People who are underpaid and lack the benefits necessary to provide for themselves and their family will find it hard to care about the work that they do.  And people who feel like they are blamed for things beyond their control will also find it difficult to care.  It is the latter point that both the production coach and I got wrong. More on that in the next post.