Why Solar Needs Blameless Culture

Recently, we heard a story from a friend who had rooftop solar installed at their residence. The contractor and his crew showed up for the install that morning, confident that everything would be up and running by the end of the day. But by afternoon, the crew was back at his door letting him know they’d have to be back the following day... they’d entirely forgotten to bring a crucial component: the inverter.

While our friend didn’t hear back from the installation company about whether that error was reported, it’s not uncommon for things like this to never be reported and documented. While solar is maturing, in many ways it’s still a young industry. With labor shortages and ad-hoc processes across the installation landscape, there’s often no clarity on how errors should be documented and how the employees who encountered the error should help to make sure it isn’t repeated. A cover-your-ass culture hurts everyone from the system owner on down to the contractor who did something wrong and runs a high risk of making the same error again.

While it may be easy to blame the contractors alone for this and demand more punitive repercussions for mistakes on installs, manufacturing science makes a case for the opposite. In fact, the best way to get your team to stop making mistakes in solar is to stop placing blame. You need to institute a “blameless culture.”

What Is Blameless Culture?

If you’re skeptical and think blameless culture sounds like touchy-feely nonsense, consider this: the term originated in the medical and avionics industries where a mistake can often mean the difference between life and death. More recently it’s been heavily adopted in the software engineering industry through the implementation of  post-mortem analysis processes. In short, blameless culture asks us to embrace mistakes instead of punishing them, with the explicit goal of cultivating a workspace that better adapts and learns from errors.

The rubric for blameless culture is as follows:

  • Provide an environment in which people feel safe explaining their actions and why they made sense to them at the time.

  • Focus on the system errors that led to the human one. Always hold the system to a higher level of responsibility than the person.

  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they are doing their best with the information they have on-hand.

  • Understand that mistakes are the best way to root out an organization’s weak-points, and are, therefore, instrumental to infrastructure improvement.

Does Blameless Culture Work?

In 2012 a blog-post titled Blameless PostMortems and a Just Culture appeared on the site Code as Craft. Written by an engineer at Etsy, it broke down a new philosophy for approaching, identifying, learning from, and rectifying mistakes. Etsy found that by shifting their attitudes from a punitive mindset to a reparative one, they were able to make mistakes one of their greatest resources in improving infrastructure. By facilitating an environment in which employees felt comfortable discussing an error, Etsy made it easier to recognize and repair whatever systemic failing allowed for the mistakes to be made in the first place.

Benefits of Blameless Culture

  • Elimination of “cover-your-ass culture”

  • More open and stress-free work environment

  • Increased efficiency and productivity in rectifying mistakes

  • More accurate data and metrics relating to infrastructure improvement

  • Employees more willing to take risks and think outside of the box, knowing they won’t be punished for pushing their limits

How Can The Solar Industry Benefit From Blameless Culture?

The incident with our friend and the missing inverter was a large mistake on the part of the install crew, and one that could be easily preventable with either a checklist for packing or visual process management, such as a taped-out space on the truck for critical components. However, as stated before, solar at large isn’t yet on the level of mass production, save for some large EPCs that produce pre-fabricated, kitted components for their utility-scale installs. But with shrinking margins and continued consolidation, how much longer can organizations continue to operate under an outdated paradigm that assumes an unacceptable level of rework? During this time, especially, solar EPCS stand to benefit a lot from adopting blameless culture. It could, in fact, save your business.

Let’s imagine for a minute that the company responsible for the missing inverter does have a blameless culture in place, where error reporting is in place. They conduct a post-mortem on the project and discuss the error that occurred, asking a series of questions like:

  • How often do mistakes on this level occur?

  • Are these numbers in line across the industry?

  • Why did the problem happen? How can a countermesure be developed? (See the 5 Why’s)

  • What steps can be put in place to prevent this error from repeating itself?

The Benefits of Blameless Culture for the Trades

By encouraging your team to report specific instances of errors discovered in the field instead of burying them for fear of retribution, contractors can begin to discover the processes responsible for those errors. While we offer our clients numerous tools to help discover problems in their processes such as SunKaizen, without implementing a blameless culture at your EPC or O&M organization, process errors will continue to be underreported by your staff. The errors will repeat themselves, generating inefficiency and rework costs that are less and less absorbable in today’s increasingly competitive marketplace. So do yourself a favor: stop blaming your employees for mistakes at your organization and start to figure out how an improved process can eliminate those errors for good.