The face plant
I think we have all at some point in our lives made a mistake that we regret, I remember cycling down a very steep mountain bike trail in North Wales many years back, hitting a stone and going over the handlebars. This resulted in me hitting a small rock with my face, and is commonly known as a ‘face plant’. This caused a significant sized wound that needed quite a few stitches and resulted in me having to buy a new helmet. I learnt a lot from that mistake!
To a certain extent I think even a person that you admire for whatever reasons has made many mistakes in their life, it’s a very human thing to do, but the difference to other people is that they made changes to ensure that the chance of the same or a similar mistake occurring again is minimised. Much like individuals, organisations can make lots of mistakes, as they are run by humans, but those that prosper are the ones that learn from them and embed ‘mistake learning’ into the organisation’s DNA. This can be done informally but is much more successful if it is implemented in a formal way through the implementation of an EMS to a recognised system.
We must always improve!
Within the ISO 14001:2015 standard there is the term ‘continual improvement’, which basically means you must prove that you are constantly looking at where your environmental management mistakes are, and have an approach to putting in place measures to rectify them. Continual improvement is a great term, and I think it pertains to a more measured approach to improvement, in that you can’t deal with everything all in one go but there must be some form of constant improvement over time. It can be interpreted as saying that we have a measured approach to improvement.
How do you know you have made a mistake?
Organisations need to have a system in place to spot mistakes. Not every environmental management mistake is always obvious so a systematic process for identifying them and bringing them to attention within the business is key.
Mistakes can be spotted using many approaches at various organisational levels. Take housekeeping inspections, they are quite ‘low level’ in that they spot problems with regards to waste, pollution control etc. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have management review. This is a formalised process by which top management will consider the organisations EMS, at a strategic level, based on information such as the results of audits, how well the organisation is meeting its objectives etc. Both are mistake spotting exercises just at different levels within the organisation.
The road to improvement
It is a good idea to have robust processes for identifying mistakes, but all this is pointless if the mistakes that are spotted are not rectified. There must then be a strong, methodical approach to make sure that an organisation learns from its environmental management mistakes. In ISO 14001 speak this is known as ‘improvement’. We need therefore a structure within the organisation that is a formalised road to improvement that identifies relevant information such as the location of the fault, the activities involved, what the problems was what caused it, the scale etc. This is often known as a corrective/preventative action procedure in many organisations.
Get to the true cause not just symptoms
It is important to understand that most environmental management mistakes occur as a result of organisational failings. It is key to understand what these ‘root causes’ are for a mistake as they are really why it occurred in the first place. Such root causes could include issues associated with training, procedures, communication, responsibilities etc. For most mistakes it is likely to be a combination of root causes. Any improvements that are proposed must be tackling these not just their outcome, otherwise we are just correcting the mistake rather than trying to prevent it occurring again in the future. You may take some paracetamol for pain relief for a bad back (corrective) but you really need to consider why the bad back is occurring in the first place (preventative). If we don’t look at these root causes, then we are never going to learn from our mistakes!
Mistakes are natural, every organisation makes them, but not all learn from them. It is imperative therefore that organisations have a robust framework in place to spot mistakes in the first place and make improvements that address the real organisational failings that lead to the mistake occurring in the first place.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.