By Jorge Manuel Zelaya Fajardo
January 15th, 2020
Profitability is a financial vocabulary word that the Royal Spanish Academy of Language (RAE) defines as the ability to generate profit or benefit. Therefore I will, in these brief lines, dare to extrapolate (to apply it to another level to conclude something) the word profitability to the issue of human error.
One of the stories that most impressed me about the extraordinary professional career of Jack Welch (Executive Director of General Electric from 1981 to 2001, considered one of the most outstanding business leaders of all time) was when I read his book Straight from the Gut in 2002. In the book he explains what had happened to him when a chemical plant, ran by him, accidentally blew up in 1963. Fortunately no one died in the incident nor was there any human damage. Jack Welch was convinced that he was going to be fired for what happened. The magnitude of the mistake made was such that he imagined nothing different from immediate dismissal without contemplation. However, something very strange happened. When he met his boss, he felt a basic exercise of the Socratic method. The boss immediately asked him 4 questions: Why did the accident happen? What would you have done differently? Why did you do what you did? Why didn't you do something else? Completely amazed, shortly after Welch asked his boss: Am I fired? And his boss replied: ¨No. How are we going to fire you if we have just invested thousands of dollars in training you how to blow up plants. Now your responsibility is to train all our bosses in all our plants all over the world, how not to blow them.¨
Impressive story. Making a mistake is not synonymous with failure. Making a mistake is part of a process that has diverted us from going from point A to point B. Failure is an emotional state where we have made a conscious decision that we will no longer move forward because we are affected so much by what happened and it is not possible to try again .
To err is human, it is inevitable. It is intrinsic to the nature of each of us; but it is also unique in the human race, to learn from the mistake made, evolving by seeking not to make it again. Do not take that path, as we have proven that it does not take us to the destination.
If you are a skeptical reader, you will be thinking: These lines are only a justification for making mistakes and getting rid of them in an easy fashion. This could not be farther from the truth.
In my personal and professional life I confessed to having made more mistakes than successes. My accounting analysis demonstrates considerable numerical difference. Painful mistakes have cost me money, wasted time and even jobs. Making a mistake is human, but making the same mistake repeatedly indicates some pathological behavior. "You have to make new mistakes every day, never the same old ones" is one of Esther Dyson's key quotes. Dyson is a leading economist at Harvard University. I completely agree with her remark.
In my university classes or in the seminars I teach, I always quote that a catholic believer should not confess a sin with the father in the sacrament of confession, be acquitted and then commit the same sin again and again on a weekly basis. Although mercy is immense and plethoric, the believer should not abuse from it. Reflecting on why he did it, can lead to a change in attitude and behavior that should contribute to not making the same mistake again.
I am clear that there is a certain scale of the mistake´s magnitude. There are fatal errors with fatal consequences. Hence the error must be attacked with mathematical rigor and philosophical appreciation, to remove that tremendous emotional burden of guilt that does not help us at all. You make a mistake, take responsibility for the consequences of what happened, don't be martyred or victimized by feeling extraordinary guilt. Every mistake has consequences.
Human beings feel bad enough when they make mistakes. No need for public humiliation. The extraordinary bosses call attention in private for the mistake made, while rewarding in public. The mediocre ones do the exact opposite.
I think that a practical algorithm when we make a mistake is to do three things: a) Ask yourself the hard questions of why did it happened , b) Become absolutely responsible for the consequences of what happened and c) Solve it, correct it and move forward as quickly as possible. This, obviously, like most organizational and personal improvement challenges, is much easier said than done.
The mistake made is one of the best teachers in the world. It makes us think and reflect. It makes us plan and budget. It makes us evaluate and improve. Now, the student has to be in class to learn from the teacher and put into practice what they have learned, since true knowledge is an executable file. Learning from our mistakes, without blaming ourselves, is very effective and above all, profitable.