I have seen a lot of things during my years in manufacturing, but every once in a while I am amazed by something I see or hear in an organization. The following story is true and illustrates a common problem known as “It’s not my fault.”
During a recent company engagement, I was working with a team trying to improve the organization and cleanliness of a particular department. The team members were very enthusiastic about the opportunity to “clean up” an area that really needed attention. Everyone did a great job of examining workbenches, drawers, cabinets, shelves and other types of storage containers and analyzing what belonged in the area and what did not.
During the inspection, one of the participants suddenly yelled out “I don’t believe this; I just found a half-eaten egg roll!” Though this announcement was surprising in itself, what followed really amazed me. Another member of the team said in a very matter-of-fact way, “Yeah, that was there when I started here.” Intrigued by that comment, I had to ask the employee how long he had worked in the area. His response was “8 months.” When asked why he didn’t throw out the half-eaten egg roll, he said “It’s not my egg roll.”
Now, the point of the story isn’t the egg roll itself or even the fact that it was there for that length of time. The real issue is that the employee knew the egg roll was there. He chose not to take any action because he did not put the egg roll there and therefore did not feel any responsibility for throwing it away.
The “It’s not my fault” scenario occurs more frequently than we would like to admit. It is common to see similar behavior occurring between members working different shifts in the same department. Personnel on one shift are quick to point out mistakes or problems caused by those on another shift and want to leave such problems for them to fix. Likewise, one department may be quick to blame another for lack of information or inferior workmanship. A little competitive spirit is healthy, and it is human nature to overlook the faults of those we get along well with while exaggerating the faults of those we do not. However, if this type of behavior becomes too extreme, the organization can suffer serious repercussions.
For a company to thrive, employees must be willing to take the extra step to correct problems that are not necessarily their fault. Allowing a known problem to continue is simply unacceptable. For their part, company leaders need to create an environment that encourages bridging gaps rather than simply pointing them out. Everyone in a company is affected when things go wrong, and leaders must be clear that it’s everyone’s problem and requires everyone’s participation.
To change the “It’s not my fault” mentality, company leaders need to do whatever they can to eliminate blaming behavior. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in, how large the company is, or even how long the company has been in business—there is too much of a tendency to place blame. This risk of being blamed for something tends to make employees fearful and reluctant to take those extra steps needed to close the gaps that surface from time to time. Company leaders need to foster an environment that does not point to the faults or weaknesses of individuals, but recognizes that in most cases, systems or processes are the root cause of problems.
When systems or processes are improved, problems go away, or at least become more manageable. In a system- or process-focused environment, employees are more motivated to find and correct the causes of mistakes, even if they are not responsible. As employee troubleshooting and problem solving skills develop, many companies discover that problems are eliminated before they become major organizational headaches.
If a company is to prosper, or even survive, it must have employees who are willing to take that extra step to make things better. Company leaders may have to change their management styles to achieve this, but the potential rewards are well worth it.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whose egg roll it is. If we work well together, we will find it and deal with it appropriately.