Let me talk for a moment about the importance of doing autopsies without blame—and that notion of blame is crucial. When the companies I’ve looked at have operated at their best, they have all had to confront brutal facts. For example, Darwin Smith essentially began his tenure as chief executive officer of Kimberly-Clark by asking the question, “Well, I’d really like to look into why we’ve sucked for one hundred years.” This is not exactly an inspiring, uplifting vision! It’s really hitting the brutal facts head on, and this led to their eventual decision to have to sell the mills.
When I take a look at the question of whether people can actually confront the brutal facts, questioning why have we sucked for one hundred years, or why did a particular acquisition fail, or why did a particular path we went down turn out to be such a disaster, it’s because they had the ability to do autopsies without assigning blame. One of the constant, pervasive, dampening effects of being able to confront the brutal facts is that people look for people to blame for things that went wrong, that didn’t work right, that were brutal facts or the consequences were brutal facts rather than simply saying, “You know, we just need to look at this as an autopsy. We need to autopsy it like any other autopsy, just to try to understand what actually happened, and we’re not going to assign blame to individuals.”
The best way to do that is for the chief executive (be it a department executive or the head of the whole organization, whoever has the highest level of responsibility for what you’re examining) to be the one to look in the mirror and say, “I shoulder all responsibility. In the end, I am to blame. Okay. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, now let’s talk about what we can learn from this.”