Everybody Makes Mistakes, Just Some More Than Others

It was what my brother always told me when I made a mistake.  Everybody does it, but some do it more often (or in more spectacular fashion) than others.  And although you won’t find it written anywhere, one of the main functions written in your job description is ‘keep mistakes from happening.’ 

The good thing about mistakes is that we don’t have to personally make them to learn from them.  As an engineer, I always think of the (in)famous Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse. 

Few engineers had heard of resonant frequency, let alone given it serious thought prior to Nov 7, 1940.  And had they worried incessantly about it, chances are no bridge would have ever been built there, period.  But now I dare say there’s not a civil or aerospace engineer out there who doesn’t look at this critical factor when creating a new design.  It’s interesting to note that there is still some debate as to whether forced resonance was the real cause for the collapse.  You can read more here

Regardless the cause, I still remember watching this filmstrip (yes, filmstrip) in high school and college level physics courses.  It has always fascinated me and served as a stark reminder of the responsibilities of the engineering world at large.  But here’s the thing.  The old cliché is true.  We all DO make mistakes.  Whether it’s in a design, accounting, customer service, wherever.  While no man will every completely avoid making mistakes in his life, we should be well-rounded enough to try to consider factors outside the normal mode of operation that can affect our desired outcome.

So a mistake has occurred.  Obviously we want to learn from it and avoid making it (or one like it) again.  Good.  Now what?  There’s a corollary to that unwritten job function that goes like this ‘When you do make a mistake, correct it quickly AND with complete disclosure.’  It’s that latter part that makes us squirm in our seats.  Having to tell the boss, the customer and possibly the world that something you did (or didn’t) do was going to cost the company time, money and perhaps most importantly, respect.

Whatever you do, DON’T try to skip this step.  I have tried.  It ends poorly.  GM, Ford, Toyota have all tried.  I don’t think I need to tell you how it ended (is ending) for them. What might seem like a ‘little’ problem and what might seem like ‘well intentioned efforts’ to minimize damage can wind up destroying your reputation.  Quite frankly, anything less than complete disclosure is a lie.  You can debate this point if you like, but I’m betting your customer would agree with me.

It’s been said that no man is an island (sorry, yet another cliché) and this is particularly true when a mistake we made starts to affect others.  Sometimes the hardest thing is sucking it up and asking for a little help.  It’s tough, but we all need a little help now and again, even if it’s just emotional support and advice.

In summary:

Don’t be afraid to explore new things.

Try to avoid, but don’t be afraid to make, mistakes.

When you mess up, fess up.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

And when all is said and done, chances are very good you’ll get a chance to do it all again.

Dan Preston

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