Why Keep Asking, “What’s Your Favorite Mistake?”


The following material was found on the “cutting room floor” for my upcoming book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. And I've supplemented it with some new material to flesh it out into a post.

Come to the live book cover reveal event tomorrow (Tuesday, May 2) if you can!

I've asked more than 215 people the same question (releasing 208 episodes to date):

What's your favorite mistake?

You might wonder why I seem to be so obsessed with this question. It's not because I love embarrassing people or because I want to gloat about the mistakes of others. I ask this question to learn and improve myself as a person and leader. 

The book and the podcast series are meant to be reminders that we shouldn't mock people for their mistakes. We shouldn't be too hard on ourselves, even if that's easier said than done.

As the stories in this book illustrate, everybody makes mistakes, starting with me. 

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The key is learning from these mistakes in a way that drives us forward positively. We might not love that we made a mistake, but we would hate repeating it or failing to learn and grow. Some people and companies learn that making small mistakes prevents us from making larger mistakes, which I also wanted to explore.

I explored learning from mistakes in the 2017 anthology book I published, Practicing Lean. After writing the first two chapters, I recruited 15 friends and colleagues from my field to follow my lead in sharing stories about mistakes we made in the first few years of our “practice” of “Lean Management” in various industries. It was my first self-publishing experiment, which wasn't a mistake. Although it's a mistake to think “self-publishing” means doing it yourself (that's something I will explore in a future post).

Realizing that some people would be willing to share their past mistakes (and lessons learned) in a book chapter gave me more confidence about finding interesting podcast guests.

The Lean methodology encourages us to be humble leaders, which includes realizing that we're not always going to be correct. It teaches us that we can always improve, and the best way to improve is through hypotheses and experiments. We have to be willing to highlight problems and admit mistakes, which means leaders must make it safe for others to do so. The stories from former Toyota people, which you'll read in this book, clearly illustrate these mindsets and principles.  

It took me over 25 years of practicing Lean (learning and doing), to realize that one of the keys to Toyota's success is a culture of learning from mistakes. And interviewing leaders from other companies helped me realize that a similar culture, built on similar leadership mindsets and behaviors, brings similar levels of success — you'll perform better relative to your competitors who don't have the same culture of learning from mistakes.

The book Practicing Lean was meant to remind ourselves (especially me) to remember that we all tend to make mistakes when learning and practicing something new. I borrowed the phrase from the idea that physicians are “practicing medicine” and attorneys are “practicing law.” Completing a degree (or a training class) doesn't mean that our learning has ended — it's only just begun. Deliberate practice, including learning from mistakes, helps us learn, grow, and succeed.

The book also reminded us not to be too hard on others who are many years behind our learning curves. If we can encourage people to be open about their mistakes and learn from them, they might surpass our skill and experience levels before long!

I believe in leading by example, as do the guests on “My Favorite Mistake.” Admitting and sharing my mistakes in meetings, blog posts, book chapters, or podcast episodes hopefully creates some space and psychological safety for others to do the same. That's my intent.

We all make mistakes. I think the best of us manage to learn from our mistakes in a way that turns out to be positive for our careers and for our lives. That's the spirit of “My Favorite Mistake” — not asking, “What's wrong with you?” but instead asking, “What did you learn?” and “How do you help others learn and grow?”

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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.


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