Nobody’s Perfect!

Nobody’s perfect. While that should not be a big surprise, the real question is this: how does your organization deal with mistakes?

The typical reaction, prevalent in most organizations, is to expect perfection, and then to blame a person when they make a mistake. “Next time you do something that stupid will be your last day at our company.” The underlying assumption is that the person made the mistake on purpose, or through intentional negligence.

However, our experience in the workplace is that most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can under the circumstances – incomplete information, lots of pressure, changing and confusing priorities, insufficient resources, frustrating systems, etc. That environment guarantees that mistakes will be made. So why, then, do we blame the person?

A second possible reaction to a mistake is to apply Dr. Deming’s approach (W. Edwards Deming is the father of the quality movement). Study the system to determine the root cause of the mistake, fix the cause, and the mistake will not happen again. That works fine for non-human systems. But human systems are much more complex, because humans carry emotions about past events with us such that they affect our future decisions and interactions. Thus, we might not be willing to trust a person after a major mess-up, even though we have “fixed” the communication gap that caused the problem.

A healthy organization will have a culture of forgiveness, of letting go of the past and encouraging people to move forward. The person who made the mistake will apologize, and the people who were hurt will accept the person’s apology. They will use this experience to strengthen their bonds, to become a tighter team.

Taking this idea one more step: the most successful organizations ENCOURAGE mistakes, because that is how people and teams learn. They understand that being a learning organization is a major competitive advantage. But to get there, they have to create a culture which handles mistakes in a healthy way. In so doing, they are showing us a path forward which other organizations can adopt.

What has been your experience in how organizations handle mistakes?

Gary Langenwalter


Our governor has been asked to resign by top leaders because issues “have resulted in a loss of the people’s trust.” Governor Kitzhaber is not alone – countless corporate leaders have been forced to resign because of lack of trust. Arthur Andersen and Goldman Sachs went out of business because of untrustworthy behavior.

Trust is essential for a leader to be effective. The best leaders – those whose organizations outperform their competitors by 2.5 to 1 – are honest, trustworthy, authentic, and humble, according to ground-breaking research by James Sipe and Don Frick.

On a broader scale, trust is absolutely essential for our society to operate. The Boy Scout Law states, “A Scout is Trustworthy” as its first attribute. We have to be able to trust that the other person will stop at a stop sign, that the food we buy in a grocery store or restaurant will be healthy and safe to eat, that the internet company will indeed ship the product that we just paid for (and that the manufacturer has made a product that will work according to specification), that the medicine will cure the illness.

How does a person create trust? By keeping one’s word. However, our word is often a promise of future action, dependent on actions of others. I’m co-teaching a certification class for APICS, the operations management association. We had a spirited discussion last night about the continual reschedules caused by late/incomplete deliveries from suppliers, quality not meeting spec, people not showing up for their shift, customers not ordering as they promised, etc.

But reschedules due to extrinsic causes are very different from loss of trust due to lack of integrity. Violating ethical boundaries destroys the very foundation of a relationship. Because are unable to trust the person again for a long time, if ever, they have lost their ability to influence us. In that situation, a leader can no longer be effective as a leader, because the job of leadership is influencing others.

What’s your reaction? How important is trust to being an effective leader?

Gary Langenwalter

Crock Pot Leadership

I learned 3 important things about leadership from our crock pot.

1. We need the right ingredients. If we’re going to make vegetable soup, we need vegetables. In leadership terms, Jim Collins tells us to “get the right people on the bus.” Accountants have many skills, but a strategic planning meeting with only accountants in the room will usually not generate a well-balanced strategic plan. “Right ingredients” also requires the right amount of each ingredient. When making chocolate chip cookies, too much salt will ruin the cookies. (Of course, extra chocolate chips will only make them better!) Teams need the right mix of the right people.

2. We need to omit ingredients that are not in the recipe. Clams are great in clam chowder, but not welcome in a beef stew. In leadership terms, we need to insure that a team is free of people who will neutralize or destroy it from within.

3. Finally, and possibly most important, we need to define the process and then trust it. If we lift the lid on a crock pot every 10 minutes to see how it’s doing, we ruin the meal by releasing heat such that it will not cook properly. In leadership, we provide the resources the team needs, and then trust them to do their work within the prescribed process. Constantly looking over their shoulders, second-guessing their decisions (or lack thereof), or otherwise micro-managing is like lifting the lid off a crock pot – it guarantees that the result will not be what we want.

I hope you enjoy your holiday meals. And remember, leave the lid on the crock pot until the recipe says the meal is cooked!

Gary Langenwalter

Engagement in your Organization

What would your organization be like if 50-70% of your people, at all levels, were passionately engaged in your mission?

What would it be like to work in such an organization?

What results could it produce? How much of a difference would it make in the quality of life of the employees, the customers, the communities in which it operates?

Engagement is what we look for when we walk into an organization. We look for the smiles, the attitude. We look for people on the front lines who enjoy being there, who know that they are valued and trusted.

Not possible, you say? Not in this economy? Not here? I beg to differ. Look at the tens of thousands of people, all ages, races, genders, walks of life, who volunteer at various non-profits. They are engaged, or they wouldn’t be there.

Want to do a little dreaming, about how well your organization could be performing? About what your life could be like? We’d be honored to dream with you. (And, we can help those dreams become reality.)

Gary Langenwalter