What’s the worst mistake you ever made on the job?
If you’re human, you’ve made mistakes. If you’re fortunate, they were small and not of significant consequence to you, anyone else or the business. Maybe you botched an order or gave incorrect change. You measured once and wound up having to cut twice. That email or document you deleted because it wasn’t needed? Turns out it contains one vital piece of data crucial to completing a project. That meeting you need to prepare a presentation for? It’s not next week — it’s 15 minutes from now.
Even if they aren’t catastrophic, workplace mistakes are annoying, irritating (to you, customers, fellow employees and managers), embarrassing and time-consuming, and expensive to correct.
About the best that you can hope for is that the mistake can be corrected quickly and with a minimum of fuss, and that you can console yourself with the thought that, “Oh well, at least I didn’t cost my company more than $8 billion, or set fire to my business, sent a propane tank flying like an unguided missile and shut down the state’s major east-west highway.”
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That wasn’t you, was it?
Probably not, unless you’re the former chief executive officer of Microsoft, or a worker at an Eastern Washington company that makes large tarps used principally for covering hay bales.
Those two seemingly disparate news items from the past two weeks are useful for illustrating the hazards and risks in business, and how hard it is to avoid mistakes.
Item 1: Microsoft announced quarterly earnings this past week. Or it would have reported earnings (read: profit) were it not for the teensy matter of a $7.5 billion — yes, that’s billion, with a “b” — writedown of the value on its books of its Nokia Devices and Services acquisition, completed in 2014. On top of that Microsoft took a $780 million “restructuring charge,” a polite phrase meaning what it will cost to send still more employees out to pursue other opportunities or spend more time with their families.
If you’d spent an entire career at one company and really tried it’s still unlikely you could accumulate $7.5 billion in losses, never mind doing it in one deal. But that is why you are not corporate CEO material.
The Nokia deal was Microsoft’s attempt to catch up with Apple and Google’s Android operating system in the smartphone market, a sector the company figured it has to be a player in given how much computing and communication activity is going to mobile devices. Having been relegated to also-ran status in mobile media players and then tablets, Microsoft decided that it wasn’t enough to configure an operating system for smartphones, it needed to sell the hardware too.
Bad call, and an expensive one too. What’s striking is not just the size of the mistake but how fast new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is undoing the work of his predecessor Steve Ballmer. Microsoft is now trying a new strategy for the smartphone market. It may not work any better than the Nokia initiative did, but it probably won’t cost as much either.
Microsoft and Ballmer didn’t plan to figuratively set fire to a pile of money any more than the workers at Inland Tarp and Liner in Moses Lake planned to literally set fire to the business, but that’s what happened, according to reports from the Grant County Sheriff’s Office and the deputy fire marshal.
According to those reports, workers were using a metal chop saw when “sparks from the cutting ignited nearby combustibles. Employees tried to put out the fire using extinguishers, but the fire quickly grew out of hand. … Five buildings were eventually engulfed, with flames driven by 15-20 mile per hour winds, and compounded by the presence of combustible PVC tarp materials and venting propane tanks on site.”
That’s a bad day right there, but that wasn’t the end of it. The fire caused the detonation of a large propane tank, which flew “over 1,000 feet east, igniting nearby haystacks. Thick smoke also caused the closure of Interstate 90.” Miraculously, there were no reported injuries.
Two mistakes, both leading to highly visible and expensive consequences, but stemming from entirely different circumstances. Microsoft thought about its long-term challenges and options, ran the numbers, and came up with the wrong answer. That was the result of something it did. The Inland Tarp fire has been ruled an accident. That was, we can speculate, the result of things that weren’t done, such as paying attention to surroundings and conditions.
That’s the maddening thing about mistakes. It’s somewhat like trying to solve mathematical puzzles. There may be one right answer, but there’s an infinite universe of wrong answers.
Meaning, it could happen to you if you’re not careful. That’s one of the few benefits of incidents such as these, to jolt us awake. Pay attention. And let’s be careful out there.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.