Gerald (Jerry) Zezas

Home » Business Philosophy » Fundamental Attribution Error, or “You were Rucky”.

Fundamental Attribution Error, or “You were Rucky”.


Most business students know the story of the Japanese inspector for the W. Edwards Deming prize.* During his inspection of a Florida Power and Light facility which had ostensibly been built faster and more economically than any similar facility, the inspector asked penetrating questions as to the methods used to construct this facility with such speed and quality. The manager’s answers were so inadequate that it became quite obvious that he did not understand enough about what they had done so well to explain it, much less recreate it the next time a facility was to be constructed. Apparently, this group had done a wonderful job constructing this plant but didn’t know how or why. It just turned out that way. Frustrated at this lack of understanding of their success, the inspector told the manager of this facility that, rather than being worthy of the Deming Award for Quality, they had likely just been fortunate. He told the plant manager, in his thick Japanese accent “You were rucky.” This phrase, with the attendant accented pronunciation, became a common way to indicate when self-serving interpretations of success, without the requisite explanations of the specific methods used to attain that success, were being employed.

The adage “success has a thousand fathers but failure is an orphan” is more relevant to discussions such as these than many acknowledge. How many of us attribute our own success to our education, our determination, our drive, work ethic, our good looks, honesty, charm, ad infinitum, ad nauseum? We rarely consider that student loans, good teachers and grading on a curve may have contributed to our education. Our “drive” might have emanated from being poor when growing up, or having an unambitious father or mother, or, possibly, just the opposite.

This is not to say “you didn’t build that.” You may certainly have built that, but you must also remember that, unless you were following a specific plan your entire life and every aspect of that plan went as designed, then there must have been other, unplanned, unknown and undetectable forces at work, causing someone to get fired just before you got promoted, or an architect who lived 100 years ago who first considered the calculations of wind load for the building you’re designing, or some geek writing code in his garage 30 years ago which was the genesis of the industry in which you currently excel.

In a study conducted from 1936 to 1955 at the University of Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research,** it was determined by tracing the habits and mannerisms of hundreds of sets of monozygotic (identical) twins who had been separated at birth and raised separately, that roughly 75% of who we are is determined by genetics, not by environment, (including our upbringing). What was amazing was that some of these twins both did poorly in math, were carpenters, married spouses with the same names, had the same religious beliefs, etc, of their twin counterparts, even though they lived in different cities, sometimes in different countries and neither their parents, nor they, had ever, in their entire lives, met. This was quite a disappointment to many parents who believe that they have complete control over their children’s upbringing and caused quite a stir among many religious groups who believed that religious upbringing contributes to morality.

The point is that there are many things that determine who we are, what we do, whether we succeed or fail, whether we’re good or bad, smart or stupid, trustworthy or a likely candidate for the Sopranos. It can be hard to know for sure, so we usually attribute the good things to our own brilliance and moral compass, and the bad to, well, whatever else we can think of.

You don’t have to be the sole architect of your own good fortune. You don’t have to take all the credit for having a bright child. You don’t have to pat yourself on the back because you’ve got an intelligent, desirable spouse.

You might just have gotten rucky.

*The Deming Application Prize is an annual award presented to a company that has achieved distinctive performance improvements through the application of TQM. Regardless of the types of industries, any organization can apply for the Prize, be it public or private, large or small, or domestic or overseas. Provided that a division of a company manages its business autonomously, the division may apply for the Prize separately from the company. Companies or divisions of companies that apply for the Prize (applicant companies hereafter) receive the examination by the Deming Application Prize Subcommittee (the Subcommittee hereafter). Based on the results of the Subcommittee’s examination, the Deming Prize Committee selects the winners.

** For a brief synopsis of this study, see https://mctfr.psych.umn.edu/research/UM%20research.html

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2 Comments

  1. […] Fundamental Attribution Error, or “You were rucky”. (cdebusiness.wordpress.com) […]

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