I recently finished reading Jessica Bacal’s Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong. I was intrigued by the title and drawn into the promise that the book would feature, well at the risk of repeating the obvious, women in power admitting they had made mistakes.
Admitting a mistake in the privacy of your own office is hard enough, but these woman were asked to detail their mistakes with the understanding that the interviews would then be published, and available to be read by the public for all of eternity. Or as long as the book remains in print, whichever comes first. For that reason, I couldn’t fault the few who chose to play it safer with their stories than others.
As way of saluting their bravery, I’ll return the favor.
When I was first starting out in my career, I was given the task of instructing our purchasing department as to how much material to re-order for an upcoming build. Simple, right?
The challenge was the material had to be bought in huge reels sold in volume and then cut into smaller pieces by a third party. The third party then re-spun onto smaller spools measured in square feet, before shipping it to the manufacturing facility where it was cut at third time into rectangular slivers measured in millimeters.
I knew how many end parts we needed to build, which told me how many slivers were required, but I needed to work out what that usage translated into terms of reels.
I failed this particular word problem. I may have misplaced a decimal, or I might have miscalculated exactly how much film could be wrapped around the spindle of a large cylinder. It doesn’t matter. All that mattered was we wound up buying years’ worth of material with a no return option based on my recommendation.
Embarrassed by my blunder, I wanted to take it out on the supplier. I asked them why didn’t they question why we were suddenly ordering several times more than we typically did. Their answer was, they just thought our business was booming. In other words they took the money and didn’t question their good fortune.
Fortunately, I managed to keep my job. We found a space to store the excess without too much impact on our bottom line. Eventually we consumed the material, but until that day, at least in my mind, it served as a monument to my huge blunder. Rest assured, I never repeated that particular error again.
People will say you should own up to your mistakes, but to do so you have to do more than just admit to them. You have to break down the elements making up the blunder and figure out a way to turn a short term awful experience into an experience worth learning from.
I became more willing to ask for a second opinion if the numbers just didn’t seem to add up, and better about referencing past transactions whenever possible. Additionally, I became more aware of my individual impact on larger business decisions. Taken together, the lessons I learned by this one major blunder helped me develop the skills I needed to advance through my company’s ranks.
Reading about mistakes is a good way to learn a lesson, but occasionally it is best to learn the hard way.