One of the many quotes I appreciate is from an unknown source, “More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren’t so busy denying that they made them.” In this blog I am freely admitting a mistake and sharing a bit of what I learned from it.
As a young manager in a continuous operating process manufacturing plant, I was left in charge during Christmas and New Years’ as the plant manager took some time off for the holidays. Before he left, he told me just to keep things running and if I had any problems I should call the regional VP, who was over all the plants in the upper Midwest.
On Christmas Eve day, our senior maintenance technician came to me and told me that we had an issue with one of our critical heat exchangers. I asked him if the maintenance could wait until after Christmas so we could enjoy a day with families and then tackle the problem on the day after Christmas. He responded that he thought the issue could wait for 2-3 days.
As I considered the issue, I came to the conclusion that we would be better to deal with the heat exchanger problem today while our day shift was on duty and not have to take a chance of an unplanned and catastrophic failure on Christmas day when it would be more difficult to find the necessary maintenance and operations staff. The required maintenance should only require about an hour to complete and could be done by isolating a small non-critical part of the plant for this short period of time. This should not result in any loss of production, but would require shutting the power off to this part of the plant. The problem we found was that the electrical breakers were not clearly marked. When we looked at the schematics and traced the connections, there was some disagreement on which breaker needed to be shut off.
It would have helped and saved a lot of grief and money if I had been familiar with James Bryce’s counsel, “Three-fourths of the mistakes a man makes are made because he does not really know the things he thinks he knows.” But, unfortunately at this time in my career, I was not familiar with James Bryce and his wisdom.
I confidently made the decision which breaker to shut off. The moment we switched the breaker to the “off” position is a moment I will never forget. Within seconds, the normally distinctive, and comforting, sound of turbines, motors, and compressors was replaced with deathly silence. It was like that moment I experience a few years later, when I was installing software on a customer’s personal computer and the message appeared on the monitor, “Are you sure you want to format the hard drive?” and without thinking or hesitation, I clicked on “Yes.” Within micro-seconds of clicking on “yes”, I knew it was a mistake, but I could not react quickly enough to correct the damage I had caused. In the same way this day, even before the production plant went silent, I knew this would become one of the memorable days of my business life.
The call I decided not to make to the regional VP a few minutes earlier was now a call that I was required to make. I considered simply resigning on the spot, move out of state, and not leave a forwarding address or phone number. But, with the panicked eyes of maintenance, production and operations staff on me, I retreated to my office and made the phone call.
When I was done explaining the situation, and after the regional VP calculated the cost to the company of the lost production to be in the neighborhood of $50,000 and the likely overtime for the entire staff to be in excess of $15,000 and the fact that this would ruin Christmas dinner for at least a dozen families, he asked me several questions…
“Could the work have waited until after Christmas?”
“If we had delayed, what was the probability of a more catastrophic shutdown?”
“What was my thought process in determining that we had the right breaker?”
“Who did I consult with before shutting power off?”
“Was there someone else I could have consulted who might have had better information?”
“If there was, why did I decide not to consult with the more knowledgeable resource?”
Initially, the conversation went reasonably well as he could not find fault with my decision-making process in deciding to do the work today and not delay. However as we continued, it was clear that in my youthful desire to prove myself to those around me, it was my pride that kept me from calling the regional VP for guidance before I shut off the power. Had I called him before I shut power off instead of after, it likely would have saved the production, related costs, and disappointed children of our staff since he knew another way to bypass the power to the heat exchanger that would not have required “guessing” that we had the right breaker.
Then he asked me to tell him the lessons I had learned. I asked him why he would not fire me on the spot. He explained that if he fired me, then he would have to leave his family and travel to the plant to start it back up and then said something to me that I will never forget, “I always support my best people as they learn through their mistakes.” He asked me to call him every four hours until we had the production back up. Before he hung up he said, “Have a nice Christmas.”
It took us 38 hours to restart the plant and get production flowing again. I left the plant at 4 a.m. the day after Christmas. But among the lessons I learned that day were (1) always let people know their value to the organization and to you; (2) even our best people will make mistakes and sometimes they are costly. And (3) even if sometimes expensive, in the long run it is worth the investment to work with our best people to help them learn through their mistakes and help them find ways to deal with the fallout of their mistakes so they can learn how to avoid making the same mistakes again.
- Bob Williams