Is it that bleak in corporate America?

Is it that bleak in corporate America?

A recent New York Times article describes the need for organizations to investigate and come to grips with bad news. Many companies and institutions have a problem here. The problem is apparently so bad that they are taking lessons from –gasp!– hospitals. Things must really be terrible.

“There is a lot more protectiveness than there used to be,” said Dr. Proctor, who is shaping a new field, the study of ignorance, which he calls agnotology. “It is often safer not to know.”

A desire not to learn too much may have guided Kenneth L. Lay, former chief executive of Enron, who died of a heart attack in July, six weeks after his conviction on fraud charges.

Fields like aviation and medicine have found ways to overcome this.

When a plane crashes, a specially designated agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, is there, with the mandate to investigate in detail. The emphasis is on finding cause, not fault. And the agency is not responsible for bringing enforcement actions for errors, which it says adds to its impartiality.

Surgery, too, has a standardized mechanism to learn from errors. In contrast to aviation, the analysis is not done by a large investigative body, but in individual hospitals, where surgical departments routinely hold “mortality and morbidity” conferences to analyze mistakes.

If it were me, I would advise looking for examples of best practices in companies with complex manufacturing processes, where safety is a major concern: chemicals or steel for example. Not hospitals.

Thanks to Mickey.

August 28, 2006

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