Introduction: Performance improvement driven by the review of surgical morbidity and mortality is often limited to critiques of individual cases with a focus on individual errors. Little attention has been given to an analysis of why a decision seemed right at the time or to lower-level root causes. The application of scientific performance improvement has the potential to bring to light deeper levels of understanding of surgical decision-making, care processes, and physician psychology. Methods: A comprehensive retrospective chart review of previously discussed morbidity and mortality cases was performed with an attempt to identify areas where we could better understand or influence behavior or systems. We avoided focusing on traditional sources of human error such as lapses of vigilance or memory. An iterative process was used to refine the practical areas for possible intervention. Definitions were then created for the major categories and subcategories. Results: Of a sample of 152 presented cases, the root cause for 96 (63%) patient-related events was identified as uni-factorial in origin, with 51 (34%) cases strictly related to patient disease with no other contributing causes. Fifty-six cases (37%) had multiple causes. The remaining 101 cases (66%) were categorized into two areas where the ability to influence outcomes appeared possible. Technical issues were found in 27 (18%) of these cases and 74 (74%) were related to disorganized care problems. Of the 74 cases identified with disorganized care, 42 (42%) were related to failures in critical thinking, 18 (18%) to undisciplined treatment strategies, 8 (8%) to structural failures, and 6 (6%) were related to failures in situational awareness. Conclusions: On a comprehensive review of cases presented at the morbidity and mortality conference, disorganized care played a large role in the cases presented and may have implications for future curriculum changes. The failure to think critically, to deliver disciplined treatment strategies, to recognize structural failures, and to achieve situational awareness contributed to the morbidities and mortalities. Future research may determine if focused training in these areas improves patient outcomes.