The blame game




Andrew Lund, Toyota Motor Corp., Ann Arbor, Mich., USA



as a motivator for project success. But this Machiavellian approach is often counter-productive, causing team members to waste time and money covering up mistakes in the hopes that when they do come to light, someone else will be blamed. In the meantime, errors that might otherwise have been easily rectified are allowed to fester and escalate. Some companies are switching the focus, skipping the rounds of incrimination and zeroing in on how to fix the problem when it first pops up.

Auto-making giant Toyota Motor Corp. has embraced a blame-free approach to project management for years. When projects hit speed bumps, managers don't focus on who is at fault, they look at how to get that project out of trouble, says Andrew Lund, executive program manager at Toyota, Ann Arbor, Mich., USA. “When problems arise on projects, leaders take a two-step approach to dealing with them,” he says. “First we recover, then we reflect.”

In the recovery phase, the team identifies the problem and what they need to do to get back on track—without wasting time punishing those at fault. Once the problem is solved, there's a formal reflection process, in which the team and its champion identify what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future. “To do both of those things, we need honest answers from team members,” Mr. Lund says. “You can't have your people afraid to say what they know because they fear retribution. So we don't do the blame game.”

During the prototype phase for the Toyota Sienna four years ago, for example, late preparation of prototype parts prevented completion of quality-assurance steps in the project's initial phase. Instead of trying to assign blame, the team worked together to address the situation by adding a checkpoint to ensure the part's quality. “It added cost to the project, but we were able to confirm that all of the parts matched the drawings,” he says.

Later, when development was complete, a formal meeting was held with the project director to review the reflection report. “When the meeting was over, the director told me how happy he was about the exchange of information,” Mr. Lund says. “We all learned a valuable lesson from that project.”

Taking a blame-free approach to problem-solving lets companies benefit from mistakes. “There is an old tenet in production that one bad part is worth 10 good parts because you can learn so much from its flaws,” he says. “The same is true in project management.”

This strategy only works, however, when companies forgo scapegoating to create an environment in which employees can own up to their mistakes and receive help in solving them. “Team associates will improve if you give them the time and support they need,” Mr. Lund says. “Patience is key to their long-term development.”

Go Ahead, Make a Mistake

Making team members feel they can try things that might not work—and still have a job—is considered a necessity at break-step productions, an innovation consultancy and software development firm in Stirling, Scotland. “It's important that team members not fear blame or retribution if problems arise,” says Patrick Andrews, director of the company. “They couldn't be successful if they were afraid to fail. If they're not making mistakes, they're not trying hard enough.”

After toiling more than a decade in software development, Mr. Andrews knows how stifling a blame-based workplace can be. “It was a ridiculously macho culture where we were expected to get from A to Z by whatever means available,” he says. “I only kept my job by delivering a functional product, even if sometimes it was required to challenge the laws of physics.”

His experience inspired him to try to create an environment where people weren't petrified to confess they'd blundered. “If someone spent three days trying something that didn't work just because they are afraid to say they made a mistake, that's a huge amount of time wasted—especially if it's software development,” he says. “If there is no freedom to admit mistakes, errors grow like snowballs.”

Mr. Andrews urges team members to push themselves in new directions and take calculated risks—even if they don't pan out. All of his people work remotely, but throughout projects he brings his team together to collaborate in real time and brainstorm solutions if they get stuck. Later, they meet to discuss what they learned from a problem so it doesn't happen again.

Try Something New

Senior management and team leaders must “trust employees and give them the freedom to be innovative without retribution,” says Kevin Thomas, director of Visionality Ltd., a Stevenage, U.K.-based project and change management consultancy specializing in the construction industry.

He dubs his strategy FUSION, which stands for the six qualities that in his view underlie successful partnerships:

  • ■ Fairness
  • ■ Unity
  • ■ Seamless
  • ■ Initiative
  • ■ Openness
  • ■ No blame.

Mr. Thomas developed the approach while working at pharmaceutical powerhouse Glaxo Wellcome, now Glaxo SmithKline. Using the strategy, he says his team cut delivery time by 40 percent and capital costs by 18 percent on average over conventional project management methods. At least part of those savings came from implementing innovative solutions for project problems and the eliminating the time and money lost spent trying to cover them, he says.




During the construction of a series of labs at the Glaxo Wellcome facility in Beckenham, U.K., for example, his contractors were struggling to make a deadline. At one point in the project, the electrical and mechanical contractors both had to work in the lab ceiling space simultaneously to meet the target. However, the mechanical contractors required fixed scaffolding and large equipment to install pipes and ductwork in the ceiling void. That meant the electrical team couldn't access to walls and floors to install light fittings, fire alarms and the like. The project fell five weeks behind.

“Instead of griping about it and blaming each other, the electrical contractors came to me with a solution,” he says. “They pointed out that it made more sense for them to work a second shift when they could remove the scaffolding and do their work without interfering with the other contractors.”

Mr. Thomas paid a premium for them to work at night. Within a few weeks, the project was back on schedule. The approach was so successful it was applied to a number of other areas and became a key tool in the project's early completion, which translated to cost savings.

He continues to promote his FUSION approach at Visionality, regularly facilitating the development of collaborative projects. From the beginning, all partici-pants—from the general contractor to equipment manufacturers—are pulled together to agree on clear guidelines on what is expected of them, how much profit they will make and why they must work together to successfully complete the project.

To ensure alignment, it's best to use the same type of contract for every member of the supply chain. “Doing business in this manner creates a partnership of equals where everyone involved realizes the importance of completing the project on time and within budget,” he says.

“By adopting a taskforce approach and letting the team decide who does what, the team works collectively and supports those in difficulty because if a project fails, we all fail,” Mr. Thomas says.

In that kind of environment, team members don't come to him with problems, they come with solutions—usually after they've been implemented. Mr. Thomas admits they make the wrong choice on occasion and work has to be redone, but those instances are few and far between.

“If you empower professional people to make decisions, nine out of 10 decisions will be right. But if you punish them for the one failure, you lose the other nine successes,” he says. “Blame freezes people. It stops them from trying anything or doing anything differently.”



A Second Chance

For many managers, the no-blame concept makes sense in theory. The trick is finding the balance between freedom and accountability. As director of the Michigan Department of IT and CIO for the State of Michigan in Lansing, Mich., USA, Teri Takai doesn't fire people for their mistakes—but she does expect answers. “When problems arise, we hold people accountable, but we don't start with ‘Who's off the project?'” she says. “We start with ‘How do we fix it?' and we give them a chance to succeed.”

Ms. Takai begins with an assessment of where the project is in relation to the goals. She also checks whether a single voice is leading the project, which she considers key to preventing cross-purpose tasks and scope creep. “Once you get off track on a project, communication can shut down,” she says. In a blame-based culture, different factions of a team tend to turn against each other when troubles arise, clouding the truth with accusations.

To avoid finger-pointing, Ms. Takai jumps in immediately, showing the team she's serious about finding a remedy and not looking for a scapegoat. “When people see a senior manager get involved, they calm down,” she says. “No one can hide, and we stop talking about the problem and start working on a solution.”

Three years ago, for example, the state implemented standardized testing for students. After test scores were lost or not processed in time for schools to make relevant changes because of vendor errors, Ms. Takai's department was publicly criticized by a senate committee.

“When we realized we were off track, we escalated it immediately to the senior level,” Ms. Takai says. Instead of firing the vendor, the IT department assessed its shortcomings. It then looked internally to identify experts in its own pool of web developers and database managers to fix the problems, says Jim Hogan, information officer for the Michigan Department of IT. “We didn't want to lose more time arguing with the vendor or blaming the department that hired it,” he says. “Instead, we focused on where we are and what we needed to accomplish to get test scores posted by the deadline.”

Under Ms. Takai's leadership, Mr. Hogan took over the project and redirected the scope of the vendor's job. “We identified the things that the vendor was good at, like scanning test scores, and used those strengths, while we developed a quality-control strategy to oversee the project,” he says.

By avoiding arguments over who was at fault, Mr. Hogan was able to get the project on track to meet the next deadline. The senate subcommittee was so pleased with the response, it sent everyone on the team a letter of congratulations, and the governor thanked Mr. Hogan personally at a cabinet meeting.

By skipping the blame game, the team was able to rescue the project—and avoid repeating the same mistake. “In the end, we learned some valuable lessons that we were able to apply to the next testing software project,” he says, “and we haven't missed a deadline since.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance business journalist based in Chicago, Ill., USA.




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