Monday, February 4, 2002

Zero Defects Mentality

A ‘zero defects mentality’ is a bad thing in the military. “Demanding such a rigid standard produces timid leaders afraid to make tough decisions in crisis, unwilling to take the risks necessary for success in military operations,” Perry said. “This zero defects mindset creates conditions that will lead inevitably to failure ….”[1]

A Military Tradition
William G. Pagonis, director of Logistics during the Gulf War of 1991, wrote about the time he led his small company into crossfire to rescue stranded soldiers, against the orders of his commander: “…following a time-honored tradition in the military, I developed ‘radio trouble’ – that is, I turned the communications gear off…” and led a volunteer team to the rescue.[2]

William McKnight, who created the 3M culture of innovation, once said “Those to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell people exactly how they must do their jobs.” [3]

Good organizations understand that in a dynamic environment, the safest course is to develop intelligent, courageous people who understand that they are expected to exercise their own initiative. Most organizations would like to think that they empower people, but their behavior would suggest otherwise.

What Would You Do?
Ponder this: What is your organization’s instinctive reaction when things go wrong?
  1. Reorganize.
  2. Develop a better plan.
  3. Send in a swat team to improve the processes.
  4. Work with the front line people to find out what they think is wrong and how it can be fixed.
Collin Powell has said: “Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved.”[4] So you can imagine what his choice would be.

The Paradox: Superior Performance Comes From Low Control
Organizations which tolerate mistakes and overlook disobedience build an organizational culture in which everyone knows that the best way to tackle the really tough problems is through the people who are closest to them. They also build a cadre of front line workers who are not afraid to think and act on their own. Such organizations are the envy of their industries, even as their competitors try to reorganize, plan and improve processes in an attempt to compete.

[1] Defense Secretary William J. Perry, Quoted by Linda D. Kozaryn, American Forces Press Service, August 6, 1996.

[2] ‘Leadership in a Combat Zone’ by William G. Pagonis, Harvard Business Review, Volume 79 number 11, December 2001.

[3] William McKnight, President and CEO of 3M from 1929–1966, quoted in Brand of the Tartan by Virginia Huck, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, 1955.

[4] ‘Great Military Leaders’