Simple Mixups & How Blaming Workers Doesn’t Explain or Prevent Them


Happy New Year! Like many Americans, I watched a fair amount of college football bowl action over the holidays. It wasn't a good day for my Northwestern Wildcats, getting stomped by Tennessee. Oh well. As I get older, I get less upset about such things.

I grew up in Michigan, so it's a huge rivalry between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. You choose one team or the other to root for, even if you're not an alum of either school. I grew up rooting for Michigan, since I grew up pretty close to Ann Arbor. I know the difference between the schools, their colors, their fight songs, and everything pretty well.

But, not everybody does.

There was an article in the  Wall Street Journal with this headline: “The Curse of Michigan's Other School.” When I was growing up, and over the past few decades, U of M was pretty dominant over MSU in football. That's changed dramatically in the past decade, but U of M probably still has the bigger fan base. MSU is still trying to get past being called “little brother” by a Michigan football player back in 2007.

From the WSJ article:

“The latest example for me occurred on Christmas morning, when I opened a package allegedly bearing the gift I had requested: an MSU welcome mat to be displayed outside my Brooklyn apartment. The tag affixed to the mat said, “Michigan State University,” as did the receipt.

But the mat was blue. And it featured a giant yellow-and-blue “M.”

Those are, of course, U of M colors and the U of M logo. Michigan State is green and white.

To the WSJ writer's credit, she asked a good question we might use in a Lean context:

“After receiving for Christmas that Michigan welcome mat wrongly labeled Michigan State, I called the company that had made it, Georgia-based Sports Marketing Solutions. How could this happen, I asked?

In a Lean culture, we don't ask “WHO screwed that up?” We might ask “why did that happen?” (or follow that up with more whys) or asking “how could this happen?” often leads to less defensive answers. How did the process allow this to happen?

The response she received:

“A polite sales representative, Ray Kilma, said that extraordinary holiday demand had led to the addition of new workers who had not performed to perfection. Kilma was contrite and understanding.”

Now, Ray was not speaking as the CEO of the company or the head of operations. But, the response is telling. If it's not an official company response, it demonstrates our human tendency to blame individuals.

Listen to Mark read the post (subscribe to the podcast):

Blaming “new workers” doesn't seem like a satisfactory excuse. It sounds like a matter of “bad process” to me.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming used to emphasize that “quality starts in the boardroom.” Senior leaders have MORE responsibility for quality because they are responsible for the system.

What was the process for selecting and hiring the workers at Sports Marketing Solutions? Was it a rigorous process, as at Toyota, or do managers say “any warm body will do?”

Does the company pay a competitive wage that attracts workers with more experience or do they offer just the minimum wage?

How does the company train new workers? Do they use a formal Training Within Industry method or just throw people into the job?

What standardized work and error-proofing is in place to ensure quality?

What's the caliber of supervision? Are they overseeing the work?

You can't inspect in quality, but who is double-checking the work if it's not error proofed?

Are workers given incentives or pressure to work at a certain pace, putting quantity over quality?

There are so many things that can cause poor quality. Almost all of those are NOT the responsibility of workers. Again, thinking back to Dr. Deming, he said about 94% of the problems or defects are caused by “the system,” not the individual workers.

Blaming workers is a lame reaction. It's not accurate and, if we believe that to be the cause, we won't be able to hire perfect workers who don't make mistakes.

I think that's all true in hospitals, as well as factories.

If a hospital has more errors and lower patient satisfaction, I'd hope they wouldn't blame “new nurses and staff who had not performed to perfection.”

Sports Marketing Solutions, by the way, wasn't the only one to make this error, mixing up U of M and MSU… ESPN did it, as well: “ESPN Promo For Cotton Bowl Semifinal Features Michigan, Not Michigan State.”

Oops. I wonder if ESPN also blamed “new workers” for their lack of perfection?

Does your organization have plans in 2016 to stop blaming workers for systemic problems?

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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. Hi Mark and Paul.

    Yes totally agree. I had one manager that used to invite us, to check if the worker had been first of all trained, and trained properly. Second to see if the conditions under he was performing were correct or if they violate any known standard. Sometimes if the workstation was according to stds, we were encouraged to challenge those standards, and create another one. Why this didn´t show up in the standardization process? was a common question. Are the tools correct? Is the work load correct? is it too high or too low. The last thing to look was the person. And even so, if the person was committing a mistake, we should think that recruitment process or training process wasn´t 100% effective.
    As Mark says, most problems come from the system, from management,not from the worker.


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