The Many Errors in Thinking About Mistakes


Article – New York Times

Here's a really interesting article that talks about our attitudes about mistakes. In the Toyota mindset, mistakes are something to learn from (and to prevent from reoccurring), an idea that can be traced all the way back to Samuel Smiles, who was an influence on early Toyota thinking. Based on the many mentions of Smiles in David Magee's book, I was tempted into buying a copy of Smile's book “Self-Help,” but I haven't had time to read any of it yet.

Anyway, back to the NY Times article.

“Studies with children and adults show that a large percentage cannot tolerate mistakes or setbacks,” she said. In particular, those who believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot change tend to avoid taking chances that may lead to errors.

Often parents and teachers unwittingly encourage this mind-set by praising children for being smart rather than for trying hard or struggling with the process.

There's some research, also cited right after that in the article, that suggests people are more willing to try difficult tasks (thus risking mistakes) after they are praised for “trying hard” instead of being praised for “being smart.” Being labeled smart puts pressure on people, that smart people don't make mistakes. How can we apply that in the workplace and break that mentality?

“One thing I've learned is that kids are exquisitely attuned to the real message, and the real message is, ‘Be smart,'” Professor Dweck said. “It's not, ‘We love it when you struggle, or when you learn and make mistakes.'”

Many Lean-related thoughts in the article, including this one:

After all, nobody wants a worker who keeps making the same mistake, and “if we fail and don't learn from it, it's not an intelligent failure,” he said.

Professor Gully and other researchers have looked at ways of training people to do complex tasks and found that in some cases encouraging them to make mistakes works better than teaching them to avoid them.

The value of learning from mistakes can't be confused with making careless or overly risky mistakes. We need to learn from mistakes, that's part of the kaizen process. If we're afraid of making mistakes, or think it will be view negatively, we'll be tempted to hide and cover up our mistakes, making systemic fixes less likely.

Good stuff, be sure to check out the whole article.

Have you done anything in your organization to help people “embrace their mistakes?” Or is the culture still one where only “dummies” make mistakes?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. This subject often comes up during TWI Job Instruction class. Do we want people to learn by making mistakes, or by good training? Mistakes mean quality problems. Its hard to argue that quality should suffer in order to learn.

    My take is that people should learn by good training that encourages good quality. The problem is most people do not do good training. The article mentions that people learned better when they were encouraged to make mistakes compared to people who learned by training. My question is what kind of training? Did the training get provided gradually in steps so as not to overwhelm? Did the training highlight the key points of the job that are key to a successful outcome? Did they provide the learner with the reasons why the key points are critical? These are the things we teach in TWI Job Instruction. And I’ll stand up any of my students to anyone who thinks learning by trial-and-error is better.

    Another view of mistakes comes from the scientific method. When we apply PDCA, we say to plan, then do. By PLAN, we mean we understand the problem and have a good hypothesis. DO means we are testing our hypothesis with an experiment. So if the outcome is not successful, perhaps we didn’t put enough thought into our hypothesis.

    A well developed hypothesis may help avoid a mistake. Many times mistakes are a result of failure to plan, and that no way to learn…especially when the customer gets left holding the bag (of defect).

  2. You make a great point there, that “we learn best from mistakes” shouldn’t be an excuse for crappy training.

    I think we learn by making mistakes and that includes hands-on controlled training environments, like the TWI Job Instruction method. With JI, we don’t just train in a classroom (lecture style) or give them a standardized work document. We observe and coach and point out the best way, if a mistake is made. With a trainer observing, a mistake can be contained from the customer. So, I don’t think I’m arguing that mistakes MUST mean poor quality to the customer.

    There’s a difference between irresponsible mistakes and well-intended actions that caused a mistake. Let’s say I got drunk and climbed on an icy roof to put Christmas lights up and I fell off. Not a smart mistake.

    I think part of the discussion is not just about “planning vs. learning from mistakes” (which is like Womack’s recent “planning vs. kaizen” discussion). Mistakes ARE going to happen. So do we have an environment where people are embarrassed and fear punishment (leading them to hide the mistake) or do we have an environment of team work and problem solving?

  3. The article is about individual learning, which is interesting in its own right, but organisational learning works in a different way.

    New employees come into an organisation which has already learned some key points that can be taught through JI, but there will still be some key points to discover in some areas (especially in changed or new areas). Some will be discovered through error and others e.g. through scare reports and experimentation.

    Scare reports are very proactive. They question the status quo regardless of whether there are any errors, and as such are opportunities for learning without error.


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