Home » Leadership » Fixing Problems By Hunting For The Guilty — The Story Of The Bulb

Fixing Problems By Hunting For The Guilty The Story Of The BulbIn fact, the most important predictor of an organization’s willingness to cooperate proved to be how the people in that organization had handled previous failures.  If those earlier outages had resulted in engineering investigations that didn’t affix blame to individuals but instead just looked for root causes, the organization almost invariably proved eager to participate.  On the other hand, if those earlier outages had led to hunts for the guilty, then the organization generally proved to be more reluctant. Resilience Engineering: Learning to Embrace Failure, Communications of the ACM, November 2012.

Too many people just think this approach is so obvious.  If something goes wrong, just find that person and fix them!  It is so easy.  Keep finding and fixing problem people and the organization will perform flawlessly.

Not!

Why not?

I liken it to someone whose job is to replace burned out lightbulbs.  What we see is the person, while changing a lightbulb, too often dropping and breaking the light bulb.  Horror. We need to reprimand that individual and track how many lightbulbs they drop and show them how to do it right!.

What we don’t see, and often purposely avoid noticing, is the half dozen people, many often managers, helping this person to change the light bulb. The light bulb changer is standing on a stool to reach the light fixture and a half dozen people are “helping” by individually turning, pushing, and adjusting the stool this way and that as well as yelling out instructions and guidance on how to turn the bulb to get it in or out of the socket.  Some are even threatening dire consequences if the individual doesn’t immediately follow their guidance (which may be at odds with what other individuals are yelling).

See also: Managers Who Succeed With Unsuccessful Projects

Instead, what we do see is that one lone individual dropping the bulb and seeing and hearing the crash as it hits the floor.  Clearly, since this individual had the bulb in their hand, they are solely responsible for the failure that has just happened.  Surely, we argue, that someone else standing on that stool could have been able to screw it in without dropping it!   And, oh by the way, if the bulb is not dropped then we can claim credit for success of the bulb replacement project because we twisted the stool just at the right time and we had yelled out the instructions that had undeniably made the bulb replacement successful!

See for comparison: How To Manage People Who Are Smarter Than Us

Hunting for the guilty and placing blame seems so  intuitive and seems like such an obvious thing to do.  However, it is one of the typical bad habits we find being practiced in many organizations. The proof that this must be a good approach is when we find a “superman” who can seemingly withstand all the guidance and help and succeed at replacing just about every bulb without error.  Clearly, getting our best person and putting them in this job is what it is all about.  Even Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE, had said that his real job was finding and developing talent.  Just find Wonder Woman and put her in there and our problems are solved!

See The Leap — another superman example

Project improvement by seeking out the guilty works about as well as throwing people and money at a late project to get it back on schedule.  It just doesn’t work well, and we all know it, but in a crunch we still too often fall back on these ineffective methods.  Sometimes the best improvement step is to just stop doing something, such as hunting for the guilty.  Doing this, we just might discover a project management tool that really works, such as finding and fixing the real cause of the problem.

Also see: Stop Doing That! as a project management tool

Are you still hunting for the guilty as a method for fixing your project’s or organization’s problems?

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