Almost every individual person is educable. I’ll define educable as being capable of learning from the mistakes of others. Likewise, almost every individual is corrigible. Corrigible means capable of learning from one’s own mistakes. Institutions, like individuals, are educable. Given market pressure from the Japanese, Ford Motor Company learned how to make better cars. However, I doubt that some companies, businesses, and institutions are corrigible unless unhindered review and reflection are built into their operations. Review and reflection imply asking, “Where have we come from,” and “Where are we going?”
Some companies have tried review using small-group gatherings (“quality circles”) where employees talk about how they can do the job better. However, corporate annual reports focus more on growth or market share than on product quality or job satisfaction. Satisfaction may be more related to the influence a worker feels over his own job than the absolute amount of his paycheck. Can a worker’s influence on the groups’ operation make the entire business more corrigible?
Institutions with more than a couple of hundred employees become complex systems, operating according to largely unwritten internal rules and assumptions regarding interactions among employees, suppliers, and customers. I suggest institutions are rarely corrigible because they are motivated more to fix symptoms than to rectify adverse causes embedded in the internal rules. For the nation as a complex institution, note the inability to deal with financial regulation, income disparity, climate change, or immigration, despite recognition that these symptoms might be results of previous mistakes now embedded into economic, legal, or social rules. Is the nation an incorrigible institution, forgetful and doomed to repeat its mistakes due to its election cycle, which seems to be more of a continuing revolution than evolution?
For example, did investment banks restructure their internal operations after the crash of 2008, or is the financial system incorrigible? If the corporate focus is on the quarterly bottom line, or if the governmental focus is on political correctness, or if anyone’s focus is on overcoming someone else rather than simply improving, then the learning gets lost.
The presence of experienced senior citizens in government and business might lend corrigibility, but can we tolerate a curmudgeon who might say, “I told you so.” That’s the issue. In today’s rush to dominate, to win, to buy influence, there isn’t a mechanism or tolerance for review of possible mistakes, or prediction of unintended consequences, or reflection on the mission. In short, there’s room and reward for hard work, for cutting corners, for aggressiveness, but there’s little demand for the wisdom that comes with experience. As was once said when I was working with the Department of Energy, “There’s never time to do it right, always time to do it over.”
Maybe that applies to lots of institutions.