Don’t let a good mistake go to waste

I was getting my internet connection fixed and a technician had to come out. He thought that the hardware needed to be swapped for a newer version, but before taking that somewhat drastic step, he decided to call central technical support and see if they could reset things. They tried, it still didn’t work, and they informed him he’d have to call the manufacturer. The technician asked, two times, if they were sure that swapping out the hardware wouldn’t fix things. The answer, in a forced-patient voice (they were on speaker) was an explanation for why it was impossible that the hardware was the issue. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.

You probably see where this is going. After calling the manufacturer, troubleshooting, taking things apart, putting them back together…the answer was simply to swap out the hardware.

I asked him if his company had a system to make sure that it learned from this issue so it would never happen again. He said that he would probably get scolded for taking so long on a routine call and then he could complain about the bad information he’d received. 

Blame and defensiveness – this is their feedback system. But at least they have one. In many companies, these types of errors just result in disappointed customers, frustrated workers, and a waste of time for everyone. Maybe a bad Yelp review. 

If you are any kind of leader in an organization you have to decide if you are on an upward path of improvement, or if you are OK with making the same mistakes repeatedly. And if you want to be on that upward path, are you really on it, or is it just something that you say? Think of the last mistake or near-miss you can remember. What was your process to make sure that it doesn’t happen again? If you can’t answer right away or if the best you can come up with is blame and defensiveness, then you’re probably not on an improvement pathway.

If you aren’t a leader in a company, well, families are organizations too. And the upward path exists for individuals, as well. The other day my son, who is in 6th grade, forgot to do a big project and had to cram it all in on the last night. When I asked him how he’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen again, he just said that he was going to start earlier next time. But that’s a hope (or a promise, or an attempt to get your parents off your back), not a plan. How will that actually work? Of course he feels guilty and of course he doesn’t want it to happen again, but neither of those things are necessarily going to help him remember when the time comes. No one plans to forget something, but they still do. 

We sat down and worked out a system where he puts his paper assignments into an “inbox” folder as soon as he receives them. His task is to take those assignments and write the action items into his planner every day after school. We also defined a new habit of checking his online assignments every day and treating them the same way. He wrote out the steps of his new system put them into his binder. It’s not clear if these are going to work – it’s only been a week – but at least he has a plan. 

A desire for improvement isn’t enough. Feeling guilty isn’t enough. Punishing people when they make a mistake is not enough. Most of our actions are determined by habit, tradition, standards, or patterns, and unless we have a method for replacing or changing those, we will fall back to them. Don’t let a good mistake go to waste – use it to feed back into your system and make it better.

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