What Former GE CEO Jeff Immelt Says About Mistakes

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I saw this press release about the new book by former General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

Jeff Immelt to Release HOT SEAT: What I Learned Leading a Great American Company

The book is available now through Amazon.

Immelt had his critics for sure, and some are writing 1-star reviews of his book (and it's a bit unfair to review the CEO instead of reviewing the book).

Like everybody, Immelt made mistakes. Unlike most of us, his mistakes were very public (or eventually became public).

I'm passionate about the idea of learning about mistakes. That was a theme of one of my books, Practicing Lean, where 15 other authors and I shared mistakes from early in our careers. The point is to learn from mistakes. Plus, sharing mistakes sets a good example for others, I think.

The more we can normalize the sharing of mistakes (which means eliminating fear in organizations), the better off our organizations will be. Healthcare has a long history of hiding mistakes. When we aren't open about mistakes, we can't improve the process… and we're bound to repeat those mistakes! We need to shift from “naming, blaming, and shaming” to “working together to solve problems and improve.”

My interest and passion around this also led to my newest podcast “My Favorite Mistake.” I'm so fortunate (and a bit surprised) that so many people are willing to share a “favorite mistake” story with me (and that the stories aren't along the lines of “my mistake was being too awesome”).

I was intrigued by seeing comments about mistakes in the press release about Immelt's book.

“Immelt adds that good leaders absorb fear in the face of uncertainty and hold “two truths” in a crisis, preparing for the worst while making investments for growth. They also remain steadfast in their desire to drive change, while fixing their own mistakes when they get it wrong. And, in good times and bad, leaders must be transparent, accountable, and supportive of their team.”

and

“True leaders are frank, but they don't traffic in panic. The best leaders acknowledge mistakes, but they don't tear their colleagues down just to ease their own discomfort. Transparency is an admirable goal. But the real goal is to solve problems.

I've never worked at GE… I don't follow the company that closely. So it's hard to know how much that rings true to his reality as CEO. What do you think?

I do remember some media attention over what might be viewed as a mistake…

Jeff Immelt Didn't Notice Empty GE Plane Flying Right Behind His — Even after he told them to stop doing it!

I've reached out to the P.R. people who put out the release about the book and I'm hoping that Immelt will accept my invitation to be on my little podcast.

Update: I got a quick reply of “We'll have to pass for now” but at least they replied. It would have been a mistake to not try.

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2 Comments
  1. Jake Walker says

    this was a very informative article to me, because when you talk about the idea of sharing mistakes, in any company mistakes will happen but the way to limit those mistakes is to share them so that others will not make the same mistake at another time. Mostly likely if you made a mistake, it is not just your fault, many of the times it is negligence on the company and it should be addressed.

  2. Andrew Wagner says

    Immelt seems to describe a version of the Stockdale Paradox here–in Admiral Stockdale’s own words: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

    I have noticed that the more professional management-types are separated from doing the actual work of the business, the farther they are from the Gemba, in lean terms, the more they struggle to “confront the brutal facts”.

    It’s extremely difficult, in a company with the size and diversity of GE at that time (2001-2017) for one person to have that Gemba-feel for industries as different as industrial manufacturing, insurance, finance, and entertainment.

    During my ten years at GE, they seemed to do a fair job of letting the business units run themselves, with ‘local’ deep experts in charge, but corporate determined where the capital investment went.

    And over and over again, the industrial businesses were cash cows, left to bleed out with obsolete machine tools and facilities, while the cash they generated was pumped into, what we know now, were exceedingly risky financial instruments that *nobody*–gemba or not, really understood. And now they’ve shed those high risk businesses and there’s nothing left to recapitalize the industrial businesses.

    A sad allegory for what’s happened to American manufacturing in general the last few decades.

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