Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy," by Amy Edmondson.
One concept in the book is the "Process Knowledge Spectrum." This spectrum describes three broad types of business operations that require different approaches to learning and tolerances for mistakes. It runs from Routine Operations through Complex Operations and to Innovative Operations on the other pole.
Routine Operations are business processes that are well-defined and for which conformance to specification is crucial. A McDonald's hamburger is made the same way worldwide. Mistakes in this environment are unexpected and due to inability or unwillingness to following procedure. Learning in this environment involves observing and noting small changes that can improve outcomes. The classic learning environment for Routine Operations is the Toyota Production System.
Complex Operations happen over and over again, but never exactly the same way twice. For example, customer service interactions or sales engagements. The people involved are different, the context has changed, and the environment has evolved. So the idea of "best practice" as used in routine operations is not applicable. (This hasn't stopped many organizations from trying unsuccessfully to make it so, but that's a subject for another post.) Mistakes in this complex operations often indicate, as Amy points out, system breakdowns. They can also indicate weak signals of change in the environment. They are rarely the fault of an individual, and treating them as such has a very negative side effect - it promotes hiding of mistakes, and, therefore, hiding the system breakdown or weak signal that is vital for learning and improvement.
Examples of Innovative Operations are development of a brand-new product or starting up a new business venture. In these operations, much is unknown, and only by developing hypotheses, probing and experimenting can learning occur. Innovators are often unperturbed by mistakes, and in fact welcome them. (Consider this quote from a famous innovator, Thomas Edison: "Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.")
Uncertainty increases along the Process Knowledge Spectrum, from low uncertainty in Routine Operations to very high uncertainty in Innovative Operations. That amount of uncertainty indicates the usefulness of standard practice and the predictability of outcomes. In innovative projects, outcomes are highly unpredictable, experimentation is important and tolerance for failure needs to be high.
This spectrum is very useful in analyzing mistakes. If you are involved in a project in which the result is not what you expect, think about which of the above definitions fits the project best. Is it routine, complex or innovative? Knowing this will help you understand how to deal with the mistake and how to manage for mistakes going forward.
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