Sometimes, a Little Inefficiency Can Go a Long Way

An efficient system is frequently described as one in which there are no mistakes.

People, however, only learn by making mistakes.

This creates a bit of a problem. In a truly efficient system, there would be no opportunity for people to learn. When there is no learning, the system will eventually fail: either it becomes rigid or it stagnates, but in either case it fails to adapt to changing conditions in the environment.

Shoto Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Katate, used to say that in the practice of Shotokan there was no room for error. American students never had the patience for the level of perfection demanded in more traditional Japanese dojos; instead, they made a great many mistakes. Today, Americans win most of the competitions.

Fencing is a very precise sport: a master swordsman can hit a moving quarter with the point of an epee. Yet, the winner of the competition is frequently not the person with the most perfect moves. Instead, the winner is often the person who appears to be making mistakes.

Now, there are certainly situations in which there is no room for mistakes: surgery and landing an airplane are two that come to mind. However, for someone to become a master surgeon or a successful pilot they had to make a lot of mistakes along the way. The goal, of course, is make sure those mistakes occur in settings that do not involve people getting killed. And, although both of them are required to perform potentially difficult operations without error, they are also expected to rapidly recognize and adjust to changing circumstances, for example having both engines of your airplane taken out of action by birds. That ability to adjust can only come from experience in dealing with unexpected or unusual situations: in other words, coping with mistakes without losing your mental balance.

I’ve worked with jujitsu students who completely crumbled when they made a mistake. Their concentration and confidence were shattered and their performance along with them. One minute they’re comfortably demonstrating techniques; the next, they’re frozen or in a panic because something didn’t go as expected. In the business world, I’ve seen CEOs comfortably running their companies, apparently supremely confident, right up until something unexpected happens: revenue misses expectations, there’s an unforeseen problem with the product, a deadline has to be extended, etc. The response is pure panic: in one case, the CEO refused to acknowledge the unexpected problem and insisted on shipping it on schedule anyway… and then couldn’t understand why the customers were so irate. In another situation, the first time revenue came in light, the CEO immediately laid off 20 percent of the company. This was not a particularly well-considered response to the situation. In both of these scenarios, the CEO didn’t stop to think; instead, he took the fact that Something Was Wrong, imagined the most dire of consequences, and took the first action that came to mind.

The problem is that mistakes are not something to fear. They are events that can provide valuable feedback. When something doesn’t work the way you expect, that is often a sign that conditions are not what you expect either. Something has changed or is not what you imagined it was, and it’s critical to understand what that means. Only when you understand exactly what is causing the mistake to occur can you design an appropriate solution.

In one company, a researcher was fired because he was clearly making too many mistakes and not committed to his job. How did they know? His experiment wasn’t working. It didn’t work for the next three people either, all of whom quit or were asked to leave. Eventually, it turned out that the experiment couldn’t be performed as designed. The first mistake was made by the person who designed the experiment; the second by management who refused to consider alternative explanations. As a result, they repeatedly executed an inappropriate solution.

When too much focus is placed on being efficient, more and more energy is spent on avoiding mistakes. Eventually, more energy may be spent on avoiding the mistake than on the mistake itself as the company works to solve the wrong problem.

It helps, therefore, to have plan for making use of mistakes and not being frozen by them.

  • Start by doing nothing. Take a moment to consider the situation. Look at your own reactions: are you imagining disaster down the road? If you are, try seeing that image as a photograph and then imagine crumpling it up and throwing it away. Free yourself to consider alternatives.
  • Ask what the mistake is telling you. Consider different ideas. Brainstorm a list of possibilities.
  • Look for an opportunity to innovate. Don’t settle for the status quo. Instead of just eliminating the mistake, can you turn it to your advantage? How can you make the system a little, or a lot, better than it was before?

Sometimes, a little inefficiency can go a long way.