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Megan Wallin-Kerth


How to Use Mistakes to Improve Quality

Or, how mistakes factor into a kaizen mindset

Published: Monday, November 20, 2023 - 12:03

We all make mistakes. Despite a vigorous editing process, there may even be one in this article! Although everyone makes mistakes, not everyone owns up to them, and thus they miss an opportunity to grow, learn, and—if they appreciate and apply what they’ve learned—consistently improve the quality of their work.

That’s the entire idea behind kaizen, or the concept of continuous improvement, which we often talk about here at Quality Digest. Ongoing improvement means many things: adjusting, eliminating waste, finding inefficiencies, and building a better process. But one aspect that often gets ignored is that very niche subject of mistakes. More specifically, how do we predict, find, correct, and avoid them to foster consistent improvement? And who better to talk to about that process of efficiency and growth in the workplace than Mark Graban?

This interview with Graban—entrepreneur, consultant, and author of The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation (Constancy, 2023)—begins with the almost predictable and obligatory consideration of the recording process. Zoom recording? External recording device? A polite offer from him: “Do you want me to record this and send it to you?”

All this stems from my desire to 1) establish that I am recording and get permission from the person being interviewed; 2) ensure that said recording process works; and 3) prevent any chance of one recording process faltering where another might have succeeded. I assure him I’m using a hand-held recorder and my internal computer audio setting—and then, to look a bit more modern—I tack on the Zoom recording. You know, just in case.

It’s an exchange that lends itself well to our conversation about mistakes and their place within a well-rounded discussion of kaizen.

Recognizing mistakes

Kaizen is and probably always will be a hot topic in quality management and the workplace in general. To me, at least anecdotally, there seems to be a positive correlation between a person’s ability to admit to their mistakes and their ability to consistently progress. I ask Graban if he’s seen evidence that this is the case, either through his work or through personal observation.

“I think it would be observation, more than evidence,” he says. “Observation or opinion based on experience or observation. Being able to recognize and learn from mistakes is one driver [of progress], whether as an individual or a team. To me, the ability to correct mistakes is a subset of continuous improvement.”

He points out different types of error recognition that can lead to progress. “Either anticipating—‘Here’s a mistake we might make’—or reacting to one that we made; that’s one prompt for reflection or looking at our process [that could lead] to making changes that might prove to be the improvement. And there’s a category of improvement where we can say, ‘Well, it’s just something that could be better,’ an update triggered by a mistake.”

The example of our initial discussion regarding recording preferences comes up.

“You know, it’s funny, when we were talking about the recording there, I’ve been podcasting since 2006... I forgot to click record one—and exactly one—time, out of those 750 interviews, so I’ve managed not to repeat that mistake,” he says. “That was embarrassing; it stuck with me.”

But being mindful isn’t enough, he states. Telling yourself “not to forget” something isn’t what ultimately prevents you from making that mistake. Instead, he resourcefully sets up Zoom to auto-record, only preventing the recordings as an exception. Recording is the rule; hence, he’s mistake-proofing himself.

“That, to me, would be an example of using a mistake to drive improvement,” says Graban. Looking at the process and technology, rather than counting on your own sense of awareness, he notes, is also key to preventing mistakes. “Human error is still likely to pop up, especially where you’re under stress.”


So, is much of what we gain from our mistakes not simply “learning from said mistakes,” but a sort of future-proofing and figuring out process-related errors?

Well, yes, Graban says—but with the awareness of complications and complexities that exist in how people respond to and plan for mistakes.

“Some of it is reactive,” he says. “I think that’s making the best of a bad situation once it’s already occurred, so we’re better off learning from the mistake. But we can be proactive. There are quality tools or engineering tools—one in particular is called FMEA, or failure mode and effects analysis.” An approach established during the 1940s by the United States military, FMEA aims at the potential ways a design or process might not work, thereby developing counterstrategies and modifications.

But in that mindset, Graban says, “There’s a fine line between being proactive and cynical, in saying, ‘Hey, what are the things that could go wrong, what are mistakes I might make?’ and trying to prioritize the likelihood and the severity of the mistake, to be proactive.”

He gives the example of someone starting a clinic. They would be wise to look at what’s gone wrong at other clinics and planning based on that knowledge, rather than to wait for the same errors to unfold at their new location.

‘We don’t have to wait until the mistake has occurred. There are ways of trying to be proactive.’
—Mark Graban

This all makes sense and is solid advice. But let’s look at a current situation. Arguably, you don’t have to be a cynic to think the world’s seen better days for workers. As the government restrictions—and assistance—put in place to counteract the pandemic end, workers are expected to adapt in multiple unanticipated ways. We don’t always have templates from which to pull our strategic planning. How, if at all, has Graban seen this change reflected in the attitudes and workflow of the professionals affected?

This leads to commentary on the matter of feedback within the workplace.

Feedback and blind spots

Our measurement of whether a decision is good or bad, he says, is often extracted from the information we receive at work from co-workers and peers. For those in hybrid or remote situations, this may prove challenging. As a result, such crucial feedback may go either unspoken or unreceived, simply due to remote communication styles or fear.

“There very well could be a bias for people who are in the workplace,” he notes. “Where it’s easier to read body language, it’s much easier to jump in or make a particular point without having to raise your hand. So maybe, just along those lines of trying to invite input or even explicitly inviting dissenting opinions, maybe it’s helpful to make sure that all the people who are on the virtual side of a hybrid work call are drawn in, and not assume that, ‘Because they’re quiet, they must agree.’ Maybe it’s just harder to jump in if you’re not there.”

Essentially, managers may have to seek out opinions more directly—and in a variety of ways—when their workers are remote or hybrid. It’s important to remember that all feedback is helpful, especially the negative comments or suggestions for improvement, Graban emphasizes.

“You’re better off when you’re inviting disagreement, critique, refinement of an idea—dissenting voices—and reacting constructively, whether you agree or not,” Graban says, directing his words primarily at managers. “That could be the perspective you need. Leaders who have the humility to recognize, ‘I’m probably not always right. I have a good team, and I have employees for a reason, and we’re more likely to make good decisions when we invite that input.’”

From here, our talk takes a turn to the world of entertainment, as I remark that my husband and I frequently watch Gordon Ramsay shows and see the recurring theme of mistakes and problems inherently due to management that doesn’t listen to staff, or an entire team that doesn’t listen to each other. Communication, when disrupted without a fix, can and will wreak havoc on the overall quality.

Graban leans into this bit of casual—and sadly, true—discussion of TV leadership with an insightful edge for those of us living in nontelevised realities. While he, of course, doesn’t condone a leadership model of shouting and swearing at less-than-proficient staff, he does see the benefit of demonstrating how a learned and experienced professional can help a business with their professional feedback and input.

“When Gordon Ramsay or Jon Taffer come to a business, on some level they are invited in,” he says. “They have expertise, and it’s funny to see how a business owner can really stubbornly cling to a concept of elements of execution that seem obvious to everyone that ‘This is a mistake.’”

He brings up an episode of Bar Rescue, where the owner was set on having a pirate-themed bar.

“There’s not a huge market for a pirate-themed bar,” Graban says matter-of-factly. “If I remember right, Jon Taffer did a complete rebrand and overhaul of the bar, and before long, they changed it back to the pirate bar.”

So, changes must be made earnestly, in tandem with expertise and results, and—if the results are good—those changes have to be implemented in depth and for the long term. No changing back to the pirate-bar theme when you’ve been rebranded for the modern world.

But what about times when professionals, be they management or regular employees trying to get everything done in their 40- or 45-hour work week, don’t dismiss advice so much as miss opportunities to improve? I ask Graban about blind spots, or areas of neglect, that he commonly sees.

“I think there’s this tendency [when facing problems]. We come up with this solution that we then go and implement,” he says. “We go with this hard assumption, ‘Of course that solution is going to work,’ so we move forward in this very accelerated way, as opposed to really thinking of any attempt to change as an experiment.”

What’s needed, he says, is a mindset that approaches ideas with the acknowledgement of uncertainty.

‘We leave open the idea that we’re not necessarily going to get the results we predicted.’
—Mark Graban

“This goes back to the PDCA cycle that Quality Digest has written a lot about. Plan-do-check-act, or plan-do-study-adjust: Doing things as an experiment and saying there’s no shame in having an idea that we thought was going to work out, and there was something we didn’t anticipate,” he clarifies. “It’s better to learn, to study and adjust. So I think the blind spot is this idea [of knowing the right answer], as opposed to treating it as a solid, reasonable hypothesis that’s likely to work.”

He adds that people are liable to assume that one success will lead to another. Put more simply, if something worked before, it will work again.

Although everyone makes mistakes, not everyone owns up to them, and thus they miss an opportunity to grow, learn, and consistently improve the quality of their work.

He also remarks on long-term mindsets, using his own experience as an author.

Perfectionism is the enemy of quality in that it can, in essence, be more of a barrier than a tool for improvement. For instance, when editing a book he’s writing, Graban must acknowledge the simple fact that, yes, at any point there could still be a handful of typos left. But is it better to delay publishing for years with rigorous proofreading and umpteen edits, or simply get the message out there so that readers can benefit from shared knowledge—albeit, with perhaps a typo on page 117?

At a certain point, the ability to know when mistakes are truly sabotaging quality vs. when they’re simply the residue of truly human involvement becomes your ally in productivity.

I thank Graban, and we end the interview. I come away with much food for thought as well as today’s kaizen lessons:
1. Don’t just react to mistakes; learn from them and be proactive.
2. Invite feedback and listen well, even if you don’t like what you hear.
3. Don’t waste time with assumptions, but plan to adjust as needed.
4. Don’t halt progress due to fear of mistakes.


About The Author

Megan Wallin-Kerth’s picture

Megan Wallin-Kerth

Megan Wallin-Kerth is a Quality Digest editor and writer.


Thanks, Megan!

Megan, thanks for interviewing me and for this great write-up and summary at the end. 

Absolutely my pleasure, Mark!

Absolutely my pleasure, Mark! Thanks for your time and insight.