TED Conversations

Questions First

This conversation is closed.

Why are we afraid to make mistakes?

I recently saw this article and found the following paragraph: "In science, you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. This way, you get the benefit of everybody else's experience, and not just your own idiosyncratic path through the space of mistakes."


While i'm not sure that all scientists share their mistakes so that others can learn form them, i was wondering why we're afraid to make mistakes at work, for instance? Is it because we are told that mistakes are not tolerated? Could it be our education, from our family and school, that mistakes should be avoided at all cost or hidden when they happen?

Topics: failure mistakes

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.

  • thumb
    May 30 2013: Because mistakes =

    getting fired, getting thrown in jail, flunking, getting divorced, going bankrupt, being homeless, being embarrassed, getting beat up, not being liked, failing, getting deported =


    Most people don't want to be dead
    • May 30 2013: you're right. i guess then the problem is not the mistakes themselves, but the overreactions of people who seem to have gotten the idea that the person did something wrong on purpose. come to think of it i did have a boss like that once, when something i tried didn't turn out well he just couldn't for the life of him see that of course i was going for a better outcome. thankfully the current one is able to see the wider picture and understands that when a person is trying to do something better than it ever has been done before, it's impossible to know if anything has been overlooked.
      • thumb
        May 30 2013: Isn't that a core belief in Japan?

        Constant improvement and that there is no perfect way as with Ford?

        But it does require a different attitude, I could see your old bosses attitude if he were just trying to get the company policy implemented. In the U.S. if some one stopped the assembly line they probably get fired, at Toyota it is almost encouraged.
        • May 31 2013: no actually. the japanese are especially terrified of trying anything new because of the risk it implies. thankfully i get away with doing it because i'm not japanese and are safely designated as 'different'. i had a japanese colleague once who got into trouble by trying to improve his lessons.

          the whole story (skip if you're not interested!) was i used to work in retail. one of our suppliers always had his goods ready on a friday and i had them picked up by courier. it was always a huge pain because everyone wants couriers on fridays so they were always late. once i decided to call the company on thursday afternoon, to get our courier order "locked in" for the following day, thinking that'd mean we had a safe spot reserved and others would come next. actually what happened was that put our order on the bottom of the pile so the courier didn't even show up by closing time. to my boss i'd caused an order to be missed, the fact that i was trying to ensure a better delivery schedule from then on to avoid our usual friday delay, and that i couldn't possibly have known the courier would let later orders in before mine just didn't come into it. i distinctly remember asking "but you can see what i was trying to do though right?" and he answered "no."
        • thumb
          May 31 2013: Surely that's a crucial philosophy of Japan's manufacturing industry that impeled the remarkable postwar economic growth, and as a Japanese I'm proud of it. But that belief is merely our tatemae now. Our honne is that we don't want to be eliminated from the community where we belong. All employees are eager to just maintain their own value that is normally assessed by the human resources department and the boss, thereby following their bosses' instruction which is product improvement for instance. If they fail to improve, it is considered to be a mistake and they will be penalized. Once fired, no company is willing to employ that person, in order for the job applicant not to make a mistake again and damage the company's revenue. This kind of fail-safe concept is prevalent in Japan. In a factory a production lane would be suspended upon detecting a disorder because if a company shipped defective products to the market, the government and consumers would blame the manufacturer.
          Japan is dominated by immobilism, in which a small and single mistake can be fatal. It could be surrounding people and circumstances that make one afraid of making a mistake.
      • thumb
        May 31 2013: I ask because I'm a huge fan of Lean manufacturing or the Toyota Production System. Which I thought was ubiquitous in Japan.

        A Lean company would not have the disposition you describe. They would encourage more such activities for the very reason you describe. Check out any of a gazillion sites about Lean or TPS
        • May 31 2013: i'm not sure about how lean manufacturing is applied in other places, but i do know a few people who've worked for toyota. unfortunately the way they reach their goals is basically by throwing their weight around. for example they have a no returns policy on parts to supplied to their dealers who are not wholly owned. this of course is illegal, even in japan there's an official cooling-off period to allow for things like mistakes and miscommunications, so a dealer could actually insist that toyota accept the returned part, but then the dealer would get cut out of price-cut deals, find a lot more paperwork when renewing the franchise etc.

          also the japanese have a different idea of what consitutes waste. to them it's almost an all or nothing kind of thing, like when there's a company meeting everyone has to attend even if nothing related to your particular job is going to be discussed. to them, any employee one day might have something to add, and anyway when discussing new policy all votes are taken (even from people in other departments who won't be affected by any change), so even though to us having people sitting there doing nothing is a waste, to them it isn't, because if something is used even slightly then it's not waste.

          there's also a very telling proverb in japanese: "the nail that sticks up must be hammered down"
      • thumb
        May 31 2013: I can find bad stuff about any company. The question is are what they are doing working or not. Your anecdotal ideas do not reflect the big picture on this. I can counter many stories of how TPS has worked, so that is a waste of time.

        Again a Lean company would not have the disposition you described with your company, especially Toyota. The reality is they are one of the most successful companies in history.
        • May 31 2013: oh sure i wasn't trying to say it was particularly bad, just that the words they use to describe their ideas have different meanings to what we'd expect. both i and my wife have toyotas actually! as for the results, it works but it doesn't. they are the most successful car company exactly because they don't allow anything new or revolutionary, and so we get perfectly made cars that never break down, but certainly aren't pushing any envelopes either. we see the difference in european (and i think american too?) cars that are moving to carbon fiber because it's better than steel, while japanese car companies are currently working on improving the refinement process to get better steel to make their cars with.

          to me 'improve' means find something or some way better and adopt it - a change, but here in japan 'improve' means to find a refinement - make the same thing in the same way as before but tweak it, for example an improvement would be checking 5 times instead of 3 to make absolutely sure there are no imperfections. i wonder which side you regard 'improve' as being? changing to something better, or doing something more thoroughly and precisely to ensure the exact same product but with fewer imperfections?
      • thumb
        May 31 2013: Have read the story of how Toyota created Lexus? or the story of the joint venture with GM in Freemont. Those stories are the antithesis of what you are saying. Also consider that Toyota how successful they are in quality and profitability. This does not add up? Your stories seem anecdotal.
        • May 31 2013: i know it well. it's a spin-off of toyota. all lexus cars were toyotas here until very recently. they have an absolutely huge range so the company is divided into 4 - toyota, toyota netz, toyota corolla, and toyopet, all of which sold different models of toyota. overseas though not all models are made and sold, so the higher-end cars were rebadged as lexus.

          that toyota is successful in quality and profitability is exactly what i'm saying. i'm also saying that they make very little progress, and contrary to what you believe, they are not pushing any boundaries or encouraging development, but insist in rigid adherence to established methods, refining but not advancing.

          the information i gave you about the japanese mindset isn't anecdotal, i've lived in japan over 10 years now and met many of the execs of the local car factories and parts suppliers when they came in for english lessons before being sent off to germany and the US.

          did you follow what i explained about the 2 different definitions of improvement? i asked you which you would have in mind when you hear the word 'improvement' and would like your answer?
      • thumb
        May 31 2013: Tomoshige

        Your story also sounds anecdotal? No doubt any company has peccadilloes. Lets compare the Japanese tatemae (culture?) to the American culture.

        The biggest car company in the U.S. was GM, in order to protect their jobs the GM workers formed a union. This union bankrupted the company which would be gone now if not for government corruption that stole from the American taxpayer.

        I don't think Toyota allows unions and even when they did with the GM joint venture they modified the work rules (union policies on what workers could do) that were so onerous to GM. The book I read about Toyota told a story of the Freemont Calif plant that had the worst quality and lowest production of any of GM's plants after the Toyota system was in place some time later it was literally the highest production with the highest quality. They reported that the morale of the employees was never higher, this may sound anecdotal but the fact is morale and production are synonymous.

        I would say it is worse to be unemployed than to suffer under policies that seem harsh.

        As far as immobilism goes I would contend that government interference is the biggest problem in Japan. The goverment propping up GM in this country as well as the big banks is what stops economic progress as the economy develops in new ways and creates jobs which are at the expense of the old ways because investment goes where it is treated best.

        In other words if a company makes buggy whips they will disappear with the advent of cars. The car manufacturer sell stock or bonds that have a better return than the ones from the buggy manufacturer. Government often interferes with this natural process always to the economies' detriment.

        I don't know how much the keiretsu contributes to the above but I'm sure that it also is a factor.
        • May 31 2013: actually almost all workers in japan are unionised, though they don't really need it because they are all eligible for company housing and every employee receives a bonus 3 times a year not just the execs.

          the government doesn't interfere at all in japan, not beyond monetary policy anyway (recently they've been trying to weaken the yen to help exports) which is for all business not just car companies. where did you get the idea that the japanese government interferes?
        • thumb
          Jun 1 2013: I guess you're talking of Toyota as a whole organization because a single author would never be able to investigate all the 300,000 Toyota employees, but looking at individual employees provides a different impression. Most of the Toyota workers are just dealing with their routine tasks rather than desperately seeking ways of improvement. If the Pareto principle applies to this case (which appears plausible), 80% of Toyota's corporate activity including the improvement processes is made by 20% of all the employees. The rest are just trying to stick with the company because as you said, unemployment is critical. I think this was also the case with GM, driving the automotive giant to a wrong direction.
          But retrospective inspection of this kind is easy whereas prospective prediction is extremely difficult. Everyone admires Toyota and criticizes GM because Toyota is successful now while GM is not. A couple of decades back, however, how many people expected GM's (and perhaps Kodak's as well?) bankruptcy? I have once read a book entitled “Everything Is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer,” in which the author Duncan Watts explores how we can fall into circular reasoning and how commonsense explanations can fail. Now we know that Toyota sits at the top of the automotive industry pyramid and that the GM union was to blame, but few people knew these facts prior to the events. Likewise bailouts were made shortly after the 1991 bubble burst in Japan and the 2008 financial crisis in the US, because the Japanese and the US governments at that moment thought it would be the only way to avoid worse scenarios. Outcomes are unclear until they become clear. Sometimes an apparently best-looking effort can later turn out to be a sheer blunder. Such uncertainty complicates the definition of a mistake, particularly in complex worlds like business and economy where replication of an event is almost impossible.
      • thumb
        May 31 2013: It is my understanding that Toyota in the U.S. is not unionized.

        I got the idea by reading about the "lost decades". My understanding is that there was a burst bubble followed by the government bailing out bankrupt companies. Did you see my post above? They are doing the same thing in the U.S. and it will lead to the same stagnate result.

        Yup all they do in this country is control monetary policy as well...

        In reference to your other post I like both methods of improvement. The analogy I like is the U.S. is a top down Henry Ford culture and Japan is more bottom up. Both methods are necessary, I find the Japanese method interesting and effective
        • Jun 3 2013: oh really? interesting how the same company philosophy in words is applied differently in each country.

          the lost decades were mostly a result of over-investment and a lot of loans went bad. the government intervention was limited to adding regulation to banks to ensure they couldn't hand out credit so easily, and a huge public works spending program intended to pull the country back to normal. there was no interference with companies, including bailouts.

          i agree that the japanese method is interesting and effective, but it certainly doesn't encourage employees to think of new ways and experiment. it's not just toyota really but a whole social thing., people are expected to avoid deviation from 'the way'.
      • thumb
        Jun 1 2013: Tomoshige

        Maybe the Pareto principle applies, I don't know, but 20% is better than 1%? Which is the main point I look at which is eliminating waste, and especially with the top down approach beating workers down into automatons is the biggest waste of all. As all but the most myopic see that humans have infinite potential not using that potential to everyone's benefit is the biggest waste of all.

        As far as predicting the outcome of GM I will have to disagree. When you have a board of directors who are nothing more than sycophants who allow the CEO (Rodger Smith) to squander huge amounts of money on robots or not to use actuarial data showing the effect of labor contracts in the future or to develop a K car that nobody buys or to joint venture with Toyota only to ignore the profound lessons. Then to be bailed out by the Taxpayers to boot. This is egregious bad management.

        As to the government bailouts, again I have to disagree, government intervention always creates bubbles in these matters and the out come is very predictable.

        There is an element to this that I will concede and that is that cultures have a tendency to continue the activities that lead to their previous sucess which makes them blind to more objective approaches. E.G. The U.S. will likely never have another deflation as it was so traumatic during the great depression, likewise Germany will likely never have another inflation as it was so traumatic in the 30s. The U.S. companies like to hit home runs as that it what worked for them in the past Japanese companies are more nimble and adapt and innovate an example is Sharp industries that took LCD to a world class level when it was a discard for Bell labs. Toyota is another example of this empirically speaking their product was crap in the 70s. But that does not excuse myopia.
        • Jun 3 2013: i agree, and supporting bad companies only ensures there's no room for better companies to rise to take their place.

          as for japanese companies being more nimble and adept though, i don't think anything could be further from reality. japanese companies tend to be more resilient because they never reach too far. they fail to adapt and often get left in the dust, but have sufficient reserves to catch up. a good example is the smartphone industry, with all these giant electronics firms you'd think some of them would be producing smartphones, but nope, they're all still focused on old tech and it's left many of them with huge losses. i think both sony and panasonic posted record losses this year. they kept making LCD panels even when they could only sell them at loss - they couldn't adapt and move on.

        • thumb
          Jun 3 2013: I'm not sure how many people are able to prophesy the future (not just some particular cases) to what extent, but one clear thing is that we have to embrace the uncertainty that is tied to any of our activity though some people shun this fact. Sorry if you got me wrong, but my point is same as yours; in order to stay away from the unexpectable, myriad politicians and big companies' board members are following the precedents despite the circumstances changing perpetually. They just want an excuse to protect their position. This is what I called immobilism.
          But due to volatility some similar attempts can end up with a different consequence. Sharp is a good example that indicates trying to avoid mistakes by following the precedents could be a mistake itself. Until several years ago Sharp used to flourish with the outstanding LCD sales, but ironically Sharp's portfolio is deteriorating now due to the over-invested LCD production facilities and cumulative debts. And conversely an apparent mistake could be a source of success. Think of Viagra. At first Phizer tried to develop it as an anti-angina but suspended the development due to its low effect. It turned out, however, to have an adverse effect that stimulates erection, and now Viagra represents a high sales as an anti-erectile dysfunction. Thus viewing the world through a different lens can open up a new possibility.
      • thumb
        Jun 3 2013: This is good. I learned something about the screen technology LCD verses OLED seems similar to MRI?

        I think you are speaking about the cultures of the two different countries. When you speak of cultures you are speaking of agreements these agreements are the reality of the culture. Things like Japanese don't get upset Americans want to hit a home run & the individual is the hero, in Japan it is more of a team effort? Both work. But I would be inclined to give the edge to the Japanese method. The reason boils down to being interested or interesting the American tend to be interesting which is a handicap. You see this in a lot of celebrities as they abandon the interested part once that have celebrity. Thomas Edison and direct current, Henry Ford and offering different options like colors, this damn near killed both enterprises. Elvis Presley and drugs, being interesting literally killed him. In either case a company needs the leader to create the goal, the vision, this is Stephan Jobs and every bit as much Kiichiro Toyoda or Akio Morita.

        From what I have seen of TPS it is definitely creative at eliminating waste. Sharp industries going from a couple of dozen employees to 10s of thousands based of a throw away are very creative. Toyota itself creating Lexus or assembly lines that had different types of cars on the same assembly line is the extremely creative. So I have to disagree on that point.

        But complacency might be the enemy of both?

        The thing to know about the economy is that investment in small business is what creates prosperity and over investment ends it. This is the nature of the economy, booms and depressions, it is SELF correcting, the only time this is a problem is when government interferes with this natural process as Japan and the U.S. are currently doing. The result is 2 lost decades for Japan and at least one for the U.S.

        The other thing to know about this is the politicians only care about elections and reelection, not the economy.
        • Jun 3 2013: sure it really does eliminate waste and produce good quality goods, but it does that by discouraging innovation, which was my original point.

          complacency being the problem makes a lot of sense to me, nice one!

          still the japanese government isn't interfering, they haven't and they didn't. the first downturn came about because of insufficient regulation; money was handed out willynilly to everyone by banks who were trying to capitalise on surging growth, and this resulted in loads of bad investments and loans that couldn't be repaid. the economy has been much more stable since new laws were passed that insisted banks do adequate checks before making loans.
      • thumb
        Jun 3 2013: You are not listening:

        The Japanese government is doing the same crap as this country is doing, they have been softening the downturn of over investment by propping up business that should be gone. They have been doing this for 20 years. At what point do you say this doesn't work? Not that the U.S. is any smarter they did this for 15 years during the great depression and out no doubt going to do it at least until 2016 which will make 8 yr plus Bush did it for at least a year or so. I remember I wrote my congressman at the TARP and said don't do it,. he wrote back and said TBTF, and he is a "Republican" (2 sides of the same coin) So we will have the whole country fail instead.

        Once again:

        The thing to know about the economy is that investment in small business is what creates prosperity and over investment ends it. This is the nature of the economy, booms and depressions, it is SELF correcting, the only time this is a problem is when government interferes with this natural process as Japan and the U.S. are currently doing. The result is 2 lost decades for Japan and at least one for the U.S.

        The other thing to know about this is the politicians only care about elections and reelection, not the economy.
        • Jun 3 2013: i'm listening fine, i hear you say the japanese government is propping up businesses, but they're not. there are import tariffs on things like rice and beef, but that's it. i completely agree that it doesn't work, and that doesn't change the fact that the japanese government aren't involved in it.
    • thumb
      May 31 2013: not sure what mistakes you have in mind, but if i send the wrong invoice to a customer, i won't get killed, deported, not even fired. but i may be afraid to do it because i may not get a raise because of it. or my colleagues will think that i'm not a "professional"

      so i guess what you're trying to say is that we're afraid of some kind of punishment
      • thumb
        May 31 2013: It is relative, to a sane person a mistake is no big deal, a less sane person it is worrisome, an insane person it is a big deal
    • thumb
      Jun 1 2013: I think that your statement covers the moral stage most of us are in. It is hard sometimes to admit you are wrong and hard to say I am sorry and hard to rectify a wrong is what I believe. Somehow we see that as being weak.

Showing single comment thread. View the full conversation.