Successful organisations need effective error management

Successful organisations need effective error management 05.10.2016 - Dealing with errors

In theory it’s easy. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and you can learn from mistakes. In practice, though, whether you make them yourself or somebody else does, dealing with errors and mistakes can be hard. Most people find it difficult to admit an error and deal with it constructively. We like to avoid the unpleasant encounters and conflicts that occur if we admit to making a ‘mistake’ - a word that has some very negative associations. Because of this we miss the opportunity to communicate errors and  manage them effectively. Error management is all about the targeted and structured coordination of all the activities surrounding the error so that we can filter out the potential within that error. There are many different methods of error management. Some focus on eliminating the error and mitigating its impacts, while others focus on evaluating its cause and defining any necessary changes.

Experience is a hard teacher

We make errors and wrong decisions on a daily basis. According to the above saying, we ought to learn from those experiences. Often, though, we don’t take advantage of that opportunity. To learn from our errors we have to learn to accept and analyse them. But we can only learn from a mistake or error and avoid it in future if we know what behaviour and actions caused it. This applies to office teams, senior managers and project managers alike. The establishment of an effective error management system is a management responsibility. The management has to take a positive approach to dealing with their own errors and - more importantly - demonstrate a commitment to dealing with other people’s errors positively. The more openness they achieve in error handling, the more successful an error management system will be.

A permissive error culture is essential

In most organisations, people don’t deal with errors openly and constructively. People who make a mistake and have the courage to admit it are punished for their courage, which means they are less likely to be as courageous next time they make a mistake. Instead, they’re more likely to conceal it or ignore it. Dealing with errors openly with an effective error management concept has to become established practice in any organisation that wants to build trust and encourage communication because these are what allows a positive error culture to thrive.

Proactive error management works

The high-risk industry of aviation is an excellent example of how proactive error management affects management practices. The right approach to dealing with errors, and the valuable information obtained as a result, can save lives. All errors are accepted without sanction and analysed. This open way of dealing with errors is essential in order to avoid disasters, aircraft accidents and defuse critical situations in advance. Simply introducing new company rules on error management won’t lead to that kind of openness and transparency. Proactive error management must usually be preceded by a paradigm shift away from error avoidance and concealment towards proactive management. This paradigm shift has to be implemented and become an established practice at all levels of the organisation.
It’s interesting how perspectives on errors and their causes change in that process. 

From person approach to a system approach

In error management, we differentiate between the person approach and the system approach. Many organisations - some in the healthcare sector - still take the person approach, which is the traditional approach. When an error occurs, the nurse, carer or doctor is held personally responsible and liable for it. Unfortunately, however, this approach ignores the fact that many errors are not made due to a person’s incompetence, but due to system deficiencies. If only the person who made the mistake is made aware of it and sanctioned, the original problem isn’t eliminated and the same mistake could be repeated, either by the same employee or another. Both the aviation and the nuclear power industries have no option but to take the system approach due to the risks associated with their operations, so they look at the system in which the error occurred as a whole. This system approach accepts that everyone makes mistakes, but it also ensures that systems and processes are designed to prevent and eliminate potential sources of errors. All processes, machine operating procedures and details, such as medication packaging, are structured to reduce the likelihood of errors occurring and ensure that any errors which do occur don’t have a dramatic impact on the product or outcome.

Errors aren’t failures

In the past - and in many cases today - errors are associated with personal weakness and careless work, so people are hesitant to admit having made them. Good error management concepts seek the source of the error in the system, not in the person who made it. If your organisation or association is interested in combining an error management system with a good project management system, contact us.  
We believe that every project, however critical it is, deserves proper error management to ensure a successful project outcome and safeguard the well-being of the project team members. The experienced trainers who provide our project management courses share their knowledge and give you the expertise you need to create a stable framework for your project. We believe this is an essential prerequisite for the prevention of error sources in the system.

What are your experiences of project management and error management? 
Write to us at We look forward to hearing from you!

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