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Success Near Misses

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Success and Near Misses

There is a popular saying which goes “You can’t argue with success”.  However, I believe you can, and many a times should argue with success. This is because a lot of times success has been saddled with so many near misses and because of luck or some good fortune, we tend to ignore the near misses until it becomes a catastrophe.

My thoughts have been further buttressed by an article I read which was written by Catherine H. Tinsley, Robin L. Dillon and Peter M. Madsen – “How to avoid Catastrophe” published in the Harvard Business Review originally in April 2011.

Having read the article it recalled some of the near misses which were not recognized by some Nigerian businesses and later let to huge catastrophe for the owners and their businesses. A good example would be the late MKO Abiola and the issue he had with the Nigerian Airforce personnel. It later turned out that same military set-up was responsible for his losing the acclaimed fairest election ever in Nigeria and subsequently to his death and the collapse of his business empire.

The article clearly brings to light the fact that where organizations fail to recognize the root causes of near misses, they someday pay a heavy price when the catastrophe strikes. Some examples highlighted in the article include the following;

  1. The issues with apple and the I-Phone 4 antenna which led to several filed class action suits against apple including a suit that alleged “fraud by concealment”
  2. The Toyota pedal problems, which led to the death of a highway patrol man and three family members, the recall of millions of Toyota cars and an estimated $2 billion loss in North America
  3. The JetBlue Airways debacle which due to their aggressive approach to managing flights during bad weather held customer in the plane for over 11 hours during a major storm in New York’s JFK airport

Taking a cue from the article and bringing home to Nigeria, quite many organizations today have had several near misses over a period, be it issues relating to corruption, poor customer services, lack of operational efficiencies due to fraud etc. However, rather than try to understand the issues relating to the near misses and tackling the root causes, they tend to of such near misses, they tend to overlook them.

According to the article, “organizational disasters, studies show, rarely have a single cause. Rather, they are initiated by the unexpected interaction of multiple small, often seemingly unimportant, human errors, technological failures or bad decisions”.

In context therefore where a combination of these errors aligns with the right conditions, then there is the huge possibility of major catastrophe.

The article goes further to provide 7 critical steps that would help organizations recognize and prevent near misses. They as listed below.

  1. Heed high pressure
  2. Learn from deviations
  3. Uncover root causes
  4. Demand accountability
  5. Consider worst case scenarios
  6. Evaluate projects at every stage
  7. Reward owning up

In putting together this article, I will try to explain my understanding of these steps as it relates to the business atmosphere prevalent in Nigeria.

  1. Heed high pressure – quite often, managers and employees are faced with the pressure of meeting targets, be it deposit mobilization, construction project deadlines, the need to get that government contract etc. as such we tend to discount near misses signals or just conclude out rightly that our decision-making judgement is sound. This might not be the case, but due to the pressure of meeting targets, we forget to carryout KYC with respect to the deposit just received from a customer that could be the proceeds of corruption and/or terrorism and could lead to the catastrophe of the security agents closing your office complex and/or arresting presumed suspects. 
  2. Learn From deviations – like was the case with the late MKO Abiola, a respected business mogul and philanthropist who had on several occasions donated to the wellbeing of the military, why would a non-commission officer assault him for no offense committed, and the top echelon of the air force did not deem it fit to take out disciplinary action against the personnel? Your guess is as good as mine. As we all know and remember, the same military hierarchy was responsible for annulling an election which was believed to be the most transparent election in the history of Nigeria.
  3. Uncover root causes – quite often many managers never address the root cause of an event. They would rather adjust the symptoms rather than find out the cause and proffer a solution. This is evident in many organizations where rather than take out the unit leader due to their excesses or inability to deliver on targets, they would move complaining officers to other departments. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen, because so often, such organizations pay a huge price – such as dropped earnings, high attrition rate of employees, project delays and overruns etc.
  4. Demand accountability – many managers tend to overlook near misses even though they are aware of such near misses. To discourage this, it is important for organizational leadership to demand accountability by ensuring that such managers justify the reasons for such near misses. Their justifications should not just be a mere verbal explanation, it should be fully documented showing their understanding of the root cause of such near misses and how they have dealt with correcting such root causes.
  5. Consider worst case scenario – where it is not expressly stated, many managers do not want to think through the negative consequences of near misses. For example, where an organization is visited by financial crimes security agencies based allegations of money laundering and or corrupt practices. Though their visit showed that the organization was clean, how often do business leaders and managers consider the fact that there could be acts of corruption been carried out by some members of the organization under the disguise of the company. It becomes imperative that managers should consider scenarios where such visits occur and some of their employees are taken away and the consequences to the brand where such information is not properly managed to the public and other employees.
  6. Evaluate projects at every stage – managers never tend to carryout reviews until there is a failure. After such failures, they tend to carryout reviews towards ascertaining the causes to prevent future occurrences. This is the theory of using your medication after you are pronounced dead. The opposite is the case where there is success. Managers never come back to review successful transactions to enable them to understand the lessons learnt and clearly identify the near misses in the transactions towards correcting them in future transactions
  7. Reward owning up – many officers tend to hide their errors due to the fear of reprimand or in extreme cases loss of their jobs. It is important that organizations understand the need to acknowledge managers and officers who when they realize an error bring it to the attention of their superiors early so that they can provide possible solutions for such errors. A good example is where a cashier erroneously pays out N100,000 rather than N10,000. Where such cashier comes up quickly to acknowledge the error, it might be possible to track the customer who might still be with his account officer to cross check what they received. Such cashier should not be made a scape goat especially if it was their first time of such occurrence and with an excellent track record in carrying out transactions.

I believe that organizations and its members to argue with and about success. This is because organizations so often don’t learn lessons from near misses that were on the road to success. Such near misses could one day result in a major catastrophe which invariably result in huge costs, losses and sometimes litigations against organization – try asking BP.

In conclusion let quoting from the article, “thus organizations often fail to expose and correct latent errors even when the cost doing so is small – and so they miss opportunities for organizational improvements before disaster strikes. This tendency is itself a type of organizational failure – a failure to learn “cheap” data. Surfacing near misses and correcting root causes is one of the soundest investments an organization can make”

Reference: How to Avoid Catastrophe – by Catherine H. Tinsley, Robin L. Dillan, and Peter M. Madsen – Harvard Business Review April 2011

“Failures happen. But if you pay attention to near misses you can predict and prevent crises”

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