What to Do When an Employee Keeps Making Mistakes

What to Do When an Employee Keeps Making Mistakes

So you’ve got an employee on your team who keeps making mistakes – maybe small ones, but they’re chronic. You see potential in the person and you’re not ready to cut your losses. What can you try to get them back on track?

Readers offered advice on this question  – and had great suggestions for how to respond when an otherwise good employee is making too many mistakes.

1. Ask the mistake-maker to propose a solution

“I am a big believer in insisting the person hammer out a solution to their own mistakes: ‘Going forward, how will you endeavor to prevent this mistake from happening again?’ It’s interesting how many people will actually figure out their own plan to prevent the problem from happening again. Because they created the plan themselves they are more likely to stick to it.”

2. Help people feel the impact

“I think a person almost needs to spend time in a position that gets impacted by the mismatch or the error–to actually feel the consequences–for it to become real. If the address is wrong, are you getting the call from the angry customer who didn’t receive his order? If the line of code doesn’t include a closing tag, are you the one who experiences the visceral embarrassment of seeing a public-facing HTML fail on the company website? These consequences, at least to me, feel so different than a scolding or a write-up.

Some people don’t really internalize the consequences of an error because the fallout is never really theirs to deal with. To them, errors result in a reprimand or a bad grade, and that’s why errors are bad. If there’s a way to give them responsibility for fixing the errors and dealing with the fallout, I’ll bet they’ll develop a better eye for catching them.”

3. Invest some coaching time

“Invest some coaching time being really hands-on with the person, really delving into how they’re operating, what systems they’re using, how they’re staying organized, etc. — the kind of intensive, remedial help they shouldn’t need, but being very hands-on in that regard for a week or two to see if it gets them back on track. Sometimes it does! And then you can back off and return to normal and see what happens. It’s not sustainable for you to continue being that hands-on, so the key is seeing what happens when you stop … but for some people, that will be what they needed.”

4. Checklists and simplifying

“Short term: have a second person complete the same checklist for each item – that is, not do the work, but ensure it was done. Have both people sign off at the end. Say you have 10 people doing these orders. Make two of them ‘inspectors’ who double check the work before it goes out. The amount of time and money you’ll save making sure everything is done correctly before it goes out will more than pay for the fact you only have eight people directly working instead of 10. First pass quality is a big deal.

Long term: Standardize and simplify your processes. Are there common places where mistakes happen? Could there be more computer automation? What are your difficult edge cases, and why don’t they fit within your standard processes? Are there any roadblocks to getting work done? Enough space, materials, resources, time, etc.?

The last thing you want to do is have everyone come up with ‘their own way of doing things’ with respect to repeated tasks because it’s a great way to introduce errors of all sorts down the line.”

5. Another benefit of checklists

“A benefit of using a checklist is uncovering the parts of the job that are taking up so much of your time and effort. In a job I had many years ago, I followed a set of procedures that had been given to me by my predecessor. Over time the job changed and the volume of work increased dramatically. But I continued to follow the old process. The problem was that the process had been set up to address a particular quality issue that was no longer relevant. I was spending an incredible amount of time doing work that no one else valued and I had my nose so close to that grindstone that I never realized I could change how I did that work.

A checklist might have uncovered which tasks/outputs are important and which aren’t. What if you are producing reports that no one reads – eliminate them. Maybe you are tracking other peoples’ inputs and outputs – you can stop doing that.”

6. A culture that supports questions

“Back up trainers. Can you assign them to mentors within their peer group? Can you create a culture where people are available and people feel free to ask each other random questions during the day? I was big on telling them to ask each other, especially when it appeared that someone had a good handle on the area in question.”

7. Have a serious conversation

“Have a very serious, direct ‘this is a really serious problem and it could result in us needing to let you go, but I think you have the ability to excel if you figure out how to address this one area’ conversation — because sometimes people just aren’t taking it seriously enough and don’t believe it’s that big of a deal, and you have to help them understand that it is.”

8. And after it all…

“Make sure you’re regularly following up – it’s easy to have an intensive one-time event that blows by and then people go back to their bad, old habits.”

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  • Andy

    I hope you don’t mind me commenting again, but I wrote a short piece about this subject only this morning. Notwithstanding malingerers and the untrainable, one way to reduce error rates is simply to increase capacity and then scale down the production rate by increasing the takt (standard time + rest time) and increasing the number of stages to maintain output. Now I know this goes against the principles of ‘Lean Enterprise,’ but it might be worth trading off Lean principles against Error Rates Reduction using a Loss Function, such as the Normal Loss Function.

  • Michelle

    This a really good article Alison, I’ve been googling answers for this problem all morning and most of the time articles state the usual: “train them, support etc” without really getting into specifics. points 1 and 2 were totally new to me and I think i’m going to try them out in my current work situation. Its also given me a good way to start the conversation as I’ve never really had to have these conversations before with anyone. 🙂

  • great post keep it up.