Mistakes and Errors: A Circular Definition; Leadership Matters

157
2

When writing or speaking, I use the words “mistake” and “error” interchangeably. The definitions in some dictionaries are comically circular.

Dictionary.com defines an error as:

“a deviation from accuracy or correctness; a MISTAKE, as in action or speech.”

It also defines a mistake as:

“an ERROR in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”

So, a mistake is an error, and an error is a mistake.

via GIPHY

It doesn't matter what they're called. What matters is working to prevent mistakes… and learning from them when they occur.

The Blame Game: Mistakes vs. Errors

Some people say that saying “mistake” is inherently a more blame-based term than “error.” They argue that “mistake” implies personal fault, while “error” suggests a more neutral, technical fault.

I disagree. Again, I think the words are synonyms, a view shared by Prof. John Grout, an expert on mistakes and mistake-proofing (and one of my instructors), as we discussed in this episode of my Lean podcast and an episode of “My Favorite Mistake.”


This distinction often leads to debates over semantics rather than focusing on the real issue: how we respond to and learn from these events.

As I wrote about in The Mistakes That Make Us, what truly matters is how we handle mistakes, errors, or incidents — not the label we attach to them. No matter what we call them, our goal should be to foster and cultivate a culture where people feel safe to admit and learn from them. As I wrote, all mistakes are unintentional by definition:

“Mistakes are actions or judgments that turn out to be misguided or wrong. We believe we are making the right decision at the time but eventually discover it was wrong, whether seconds or years later.”​​

Shifting from Blame to Learning

Leaders and organizations have a choice:

  • cultivate a culture of fear and punishment or a
  • culture of learning and innovation.

It's really a spectrum between those two options, not a sharp binary divide of either/or. To what extent are you cultivating an active culture of learning and innovation (or even just improvement)?

A culture of fear drives mistakes underground, preventing learning and improvement. Conversely, a culture that views mistakes as opportunities for growth can lead to better outcomes over time. I wrote:

“A culture of learning from mistakes brings many benefits including higher employee engagement, lower turnover, more improvement, and greater innovation. It's about better results–as individuals, teams, and organizations.”​​

The Power of Language: Incidents and Accidents

The late Paul O'Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa and U.S. Treasury Secretary, thought words mattered greatly in working collaboratively toward Zero Harm. As quoted in this book of collected speech transcripts, O'Neill said:

“It was necessary to change the language. Still, at a lot of places, people talk about accidents. If you think about it, the phrase that goes with accidents is, “We couldn't help it. God must have intended us to be hurt. Nobody wanted it. Nobody planned it. Nobody intended it but we have accidents.”

I said, “No, no. We're not going to have any accidents at Alcoa. We're going to have incidents.” The word “incidents” gives you intellectual permission to figure out what went wrong. How can we make sure it never happens again anywhere?”

Most importantly, O'Neill was leading the culture change — to make it safe for people to speak up about risks and injuries in the name of solving the underlying root causes instead of blaming or punishing people.

Psychological Safety: The Foundation for Learning

Creating a culture that encourages learning from mistakes requires psychological safety. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. This belief is crucial for cultivating an environment where people feel safe to admit and learn from their errors. Edmondson explains:

“Leaders who openly share their mistakes create an environment where others feel safe and willing to do the same. When an employee admits a mistake, they quickly learn how well their organization tolerates it or better yet, welcomes it.”​​

Embracing Mistakes: A Path to Growth

Ultimately, embracing mistakes as a natural part of the learning process can transform an organization. When leaders model this behavior and respond to mistakes with kindness and a focus on improvement, it sets a powerful example. As you can read about in The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation, this approach leads to more engaged employees, better problem-solving, and a stronger, more resilient organization.

In conclusion, whether we call them mistakes, errors, incidents, or accidents, the key is cultivating a culture that views these events as opportunities for learning and growth. By doing so, we can create environments where people feel safe to innovate, experiment, and continuously improve.

My New Mistake-Proofing Course

I discuss the language and these dynamics, and more, in my new online Mistake-Proofing course that's hosted at TKMG Academy.

Here's my recent blog post about it:


You can buy the course individually at TKMGAcademy.com for $129. Volume discounts are available for large teams or your entire workforce (for more information, email info@tkmgacademy.com).

The course is also part of the wonderful collection of courses in the all-access annual subscription. The annual price of $529 goes up significantly at 11:59 pm CDT on May 31st, so act now for the best value pricing.


What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.


Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleRyan McCormack’s Operational Excellence Mixtape: May 31, 2024
Next articleTim Hobbs: AME Keynote Speaker and Passionate Problem Solver
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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve found it can be really hard to “change the language” at large organizations but agree using words and terms precisely can help us avoid miscommunication and confusion. Regarding mistakes vs. errors, it reminds me of a Decision Analysis course I took in grad school. The professor believed that a “good decision” could still have a “poor outcome” but that doesn’t mean we should label the decision “bad” if it was made in good faith, with the best possible info and data available at the time, etc. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that. Is an action that produces a negative result automatically a “mistake”?

    • Thanks, Doug, for reading and commenting.

      I also go by this definition of “mistake” and use it in my book, “The Mistakes That Make Us”:

      “Mistakes are “actions or judgments that turn out to be misguided or wrong.” We believe we are making the right decision at the time but eventually discover it was wrong, whether seconds or years later.”

      We can really only judge a decision based on the outcome. If the outcome is worse than expected, it’s fair to call it a mistake.

      Now, there’s nuance where we might make the “right” decision that would have otherwise been OK, but some outside circumstances led to a bad result. The mistake might be not anticipating the other circumstances — but that’s not always possible.

      There are times, also, when the “wrong” decision might lead to a good outcome. That could be a “happy accident” — a decision we might choose to not repeat.

      When watching sports, I do hate the “judge the outcome” mentality — when the Seahawks threw the ball near the goalline in the Super Bowl and got intercepted, that decision was labeled a horrible mistake. Had they scored a touchdown, the decision would have been celebrated as “gutsy.”

      But back to your question — I’m less concerned about labeling a bad outcome as a “mistake” when that bad outcome doesn’t result in blame and punishment. If the goal is learning and improvement, we can state the bad outcome as a fact, and a mistake, and not worry about that too much. Our worry is more about, “Can we learn from that?” and “What would we do differently next time?”

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.