Why Do Companies Stick With Their Mistakes?

Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while. I’ve been traveling. Which is the inspiration for this piece.

No one is perfect. And no company avoids every mistake. But why do companies make mistakes and then do nothing to get rid of them?

Let me propose five reasons:
1. The people who make the policies don’t actually work in the field.
2. The people in the field aren’t given the ability to influence management without appearing to be troublemakers.
3. Customers aren’t encouraged to speak up, and their suggestions are ignored.
4. It’s easier to make a policy than to undo it.
5. Business is complicated and unless you come up with a clever way to measure the impact of a decision, it’s often difficult to tell if it’s a good idea or not.

I thought of all of these reasons as I flew from one airport to another the last few weeks. My heart goes out to the folks working in the airline industry—they are brave and stalwart folks, and they deserve far more credit than they are getting. I also completely support our efforts to make flying safe. That said, I think the airline security issue is an amazing analogy for what’s wrong at most companies (your company?).

First, it’s obvious that most of us aren’t encouraged to speak up about security at the airport. To do so is to be a troublemaker or even unpatriotic . Just as a company can build a culture that makes it hard to criticize a decision from headquarters, it’s been made clear to us that experts are in charge and we should shut up and support any efforts to stop bad guys from flying.

But the experts aren’t in charge! Many of the decisions getting implemented are nothing but superstitions. One person decides that nail clippers are dangerous but ballpoint pens are not, and airports all over the country begin to confiscate nail clippers. There’s no system in place to measure whether or not this policy is effective, whether or not it is worth the thousand of hours and millions of dollars it costs to enforce. Without a way to measure the effect, we can be confident the policy will last a long time.

Today’s USA TODAY says that a whistleblower is accusing the FAA of failing to follow up on security tests and ignoring bad results when they do perform tests. Has that ever happened at your company?

Because there’s no consistent measurement system, we also discover obvious discrepancies across the system. In Montrose, Colorado, your shoes are x-rayed and you need to remove a fleece sweater (IF it has a zipper). In New York, however, shoes are fine, as are sportcoats and fleeces of any kind. At one airport, the guards confiscated all Duracell batteries, but allowed much larger laptop batteries through. Why? Because of superstition. Because there was no measurement system. Because the person who invented the policy wasn’t standing there discovering whether it was working or not. It seems pretty obvious to me that if it’s important to x-ray shoes in Colorado, it’s important to do it in New York.

One last example and one suggestion. In New York, you can’t walk through security with an open bottle of Poland Spring water in your hand. You have to take a sip to prove it’s not acid or something. But why wouldn’t a bad guy just put the bottle in his carry on? I know, I’m not supposed to ask because that would be undermining the system, but come on!

And my suggestion? Here you go. Let’s put an email address on every x-ray machine in the country. Have it say, “Do you know how to make security screening better? Drop us a line!” Now, imagine hundreds of thousands of very smart businesspeople, all travelers, all security experts or consultants or whatever, constantly upgrading the system by feeding back advice, detecting errors or increasing consistency… hmmm. Imagine that both the person making the suggestion and the operator reading it would get a bonus every time a suggestion made it through and was put into action. I could send a note praising the speed, thoroughness and kindness of the woman who patted me down… or describe three ways to make the system at West Palm Beach go more smoothly. The system would evolve—fast. Hey, it might even work at your company!

So why is an obvious idea like this (evolving fast with fast feedback loops based on data) so hard to swallow? Because managers like to make decisions. Because managers like to be right. Because employees have been trained to want the manager to make the decision, and to want stability in the policies they work with.

As our world goes faster, we need to evolve faster. If we don’t, the competition will.

While we’re talking about evolution, note that Richard Pachter wrote a supernice review of my new book in the Miami Herald today: Herald Review