Monday, November 3, 2014

How To Survive Making a Mistake

On this blog we've mentioned awesome performance reviews, bosses complimenting your hard work, and management admitting how much of an asset you are. And yes, we've gotten a lot of positive feedback on our work over the years. But, everyone makes mistakes and I am no exception.

The truth is that making a mistake in the engineering world can be extremely terrifying. In many engineering positions, you are directly responsible for the safety of people. Think airplanes, cars, boats, water filtration plants, and so many other systems. An engineering error in these systems could prove fatal. Even when you aren't responsible for life safety, a mistake could cause millions of dollars of damage to the company. And while engineering organizations have many safeguards in place to make sure their systems are safe, engineers themselves are still human and can make errors. 

As a new engineer, sometimes it's you that causes the error. Usually because no matter how smart you are, you may not know enough about the nitty-gritty details of your new profession to know that you are making a mistake. That's exactly what happened to me once at my last job. 

It was a typical day at work, and my phone rang. 

"This is Vanessa," I said, as I continued typing. 

"Vanessa, this is bad," said a man on the other end, a client from a project that was being installed. 

I stopped typing, and paused for a moment. "What?"

"Did you tell somebody to install this [very standard part you've used in every other design with no problems]?" 

"Yes... Why?" my heart started to beat quickly. 

"Why the fuck did you do that! It's completely wrong. You better pray it works and start polishing up your resume, because if it doesn't work both of us will be out of a job.You know if you screw this up you'll have costed us [unimaginable amounts of money]. Really Vanessa, what were you thinking? I've got to try to clean up this mess." 

He slammed the phone. Stunned, I slowly lowered the phone down into it's cradle. I silently stood up, walked to the bathroom, and immediately vomited. It wasn't intentional, I just was honestly so stunned and terrified, I literally got sick. And then I sat on the bathroom floor (gross, I know) my mind was abuzz. I normally take feedback very well, but thinking that I was the root of a problem this big was causing me to completely unravel. 

How could I have known? College didn't teach me the mundane details about industrial equipment, and nobody had ever suggested that there was a problem. It was such a standard and seemingly insignificant part of the system, I never doubted it would work.  How was I so stupid? If this isn't right, what else is wrong? If I didn't know this basic fact, how many other mistakes did I make in the design? Should I even be an engineer? Maybe I should just give up and do something else. I can write. I should be a writer, then I won't cost companies millions of dollars and ruin peoples careers.  

I wanted to hide, to disappear. I started wondering if I could just leave work, and never come back without having to confront the problem. I was ashamed and incredibly scared of what might happen. 

There, sitting on the office bathroom floor like a complete nut job, I texted a good friend (who isn't an engineer) and told her I was freaking out. She managed to talk me out of my downward spiral, and helped me realize that hiding in the bathroom wouldn't insulate me from my mistake. 

So I sucked it up, went back to my cubicle, and began to research the problem. Within 24 hours, I'd found a way to use the same part in a different way in order to solve the problem. Yes, I may have made a mistake, thrown up at work, tried to hide in the office bathroom, and cried myself to sleep. But in the end, I solved the problem and learned something to help me in the future. Long term, the the part I was most ashamed of was my reaction to the mistake and not the mistake itself. 

I realized from this experience (and others that followed) that some of my clients had a little bit of a flare for the dramatic.Who can blame them? They are all under an immense amount of pressure. and until we had a solution everyone was in the same mistake purgatory. But I've realized that spending time fretting about an error doesn't get me any closer to the solution (even if everyone else is freaking out). So instead, I've changed and adopted a much more level headed approach to dealing with mistakes.

Treat every mistake the same way. Understand the consequences, but treat it like a problem in school. This allows you to gain emotional distance and approach the situation with a clear head.

Assigning blame is a waste of time.  Whether it was the fault of someone you hardly know, your arch nemesis, or even your own fault, assigning blame just makes people nervous and makes it less likely that you'll get relevant information about the problem at hand. That said, do not accept blame for something you did not do. A lot of people react poorly in the wake of an error, and you should not volunteer yourself to be a scapegoat. 

Use your engineering training. I started typing steps for how to identify and solve problems, but as an engineer you already know this.

Ask for help, and fail loudly. If you don't have the tools to succeed, ask for help. Nobody can do everything, and it's better to let management have the chance to step in and help (especially if it is an issue related to safety) than to hide the problem until it's too late to fix.

Hopefully, these tips will help you find your way to the light at the end of the tunnel after a mistake.



1 comment :

  1. Those are all good strategies, Vanessa. I can relate. Making mistakes in my profession is a matter of life and death, so they have to be avoided at all cost. In the end, we have to remember that we are fallible human beings, and all we can really do is do our best.


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