Friday, September 16, 2005

Chapter 6


I used to believe in perfection. In fact, perfection was what I expected, from myself and everyone else, all the time.

If a mistake was found and it was mine, I immediately started making excuses for myself, usually at someone else’s expense. But I always felt bad about making a mistake, even though I never believed it was my fault. I was disappointed in myself for not being perfect (I should have spotted it, after all!) and afraid that I would lose my position or at least my standing, because being perfect was my job.

If a mistake was found and it was someone else’s, it made me mad. Everyone else owed me the same perfection I owed them. Failure to achieve perfection interfered with getting the job done and, if the culprit worked for me, made me look bad. I never thought, then, that any mistake was tiny or that you should expect a certain number of errors in any work done by humans. I always demanded an explanation for the outrage (at least by my demeanor if not by my words). And I always knew that any excuse they would come up with would be inadequate.

When I started working with customers instead of coworkers, I came to understand that I could not hold them to the same standard of perfection that I had always demanded of others. First of all, they were already perfect in their own way, just because they were my customers. (They chose me, didn’t they!) Second, if they did not do everything perfectly, it was not going to be their fault, is was going to be my fault (in their eyes, at least) – I didn’t teach them what they needed to know, I didn’t set it up properly, the software wasn’t “user-friendly” enough. And last, if I insulted them or made them unhappy, they would go find someone who treated them better, immediately.

I found out that customers don’t care about your perfect procedure or your wonderful software, they care about getting their work done. I learned to focus on the goal and not worry about people’s little idiosyncratic ways of doing things. Whatever works! And if they did have to learn to do something a particular way for it to work, I didn’t mind telling them how to do it a hundred times or a hundred different ways. Most things, they would end up doing thousands of times. It didn’t matter if some of them were slow to pick it up at first. All my customers got faster and better than me eventually. I just had to get them through that first hard part, until the gears meshed and they took off on their own. Whatever it takes!

There were many times when the customer did something (or failed to do something) that caused a problem. But blaming the customer was not an option. Getting mad at my customers for making mistakes was counterproductive and eventually I didn’t do it anymore. I retrained them or set up the software so they couldn’t make that mistake any more, or helped them develop a procedure for checking the work before it went out.

When you blame someone for something, they defend themselves. They either start looking for someone else to blame (such as the person who trained them) or they shut up and won’t tell you what happened. Then you can’t get the information you need to troubleshoot and fix the problem. I had to make it safe for them to tell me what I needed to know.

Eventually, I not only didn’t blame them, I made their excuses for them. I made their excuses for them so that they didn’t feel bad (an upset software user can’t concentrate), so that they knew I was on their side (they could tell me everything), and so that they could give an explanation to their boss and coworkers (a grateful software user tries harder).

Out of necessity, I had stopped trying to figure out what was wrong with my customers and had started assuming that they were doing the best they could. My job wasn’t to find fault, it was to help them. This new way of doing things worked even when, I suspect, the person wasn’t really interested in learning what I was trying to teach them or when they were distracted by personal problems or whatever else prevents someone from learning. Even though I was willing to tell them how to do something 100 times, I never found anyone who wanted to keep calling and asking me more than three or four times.

Of course, I tried this new understanding and sympathy with my coworkers, too. And it worked just as well with them, maybe even better. It’s a real relief, I guess, when your coworkers are trying to help you do well instead of trying to catch you in a mistake.

When I found something that didn’t seem right, I would try to start the conversation in a way that didn’t accuse, let me give and receive information, and didn’t make the other person mad. The one that worked for me was, “Can you take a look at this for me?” Then I let them look it over for a minute or two. Many times, they would see what was bothering me right away and say, “Yep, that’s a mistake, I didn’t mean to do that.” If they said something like that, then I said something like, “I’ve done that, too, it’s easy to miss that.” If it wasn’t a mistake, they might explain why they did it that way and convince me their way was better. If not, I might say something like, “I see what you mean, but wouldn’t it be better if we did it this way?” and show them what I thought. Whatever we decided to do, no one had to feel bad and no one had to get mad, which only gets in the way of this task and everything else we need to do together.

If they did see what they have done as a mistake, I allowed them any explanation that they cared to give. It didn’t matter to me if their explanation was “lame” or if they didn’t give one. I didn’t need for them to admit anything. If there was something that either of us could do to make it easier to do the task correctly or harder to make the mistake, we could talk about it. Otherwise, it was enough that they knew about and corrected the mistake and kept an eye out for it in the future. They didn’t have to explain why they were not perfect.

Giving people a break had an unexpected side effect for me. I realized that I could give myself a break, too. I came down hard on people for making mistakes (sure it was character flaw) and I felt really bad when I made one (same reason!). Now, I could see that they didn’t have to be perfect and neither did I. For the first time in my life, it was easy for me to admit that I had made a mistake, figure out what I needed to do to keep from making it again, fix it, and move on.

The energy I used to use (and it felt like a lot) trying to make other people feel bad about their mistakes, making myself feel bad about my mistakes, is now spent more wisely. Identifying and fixing mistakes quickly and adapting procedures and processes to minimize mistakes is much more efficient and effective than demanding perfection.

Assume everyone is doing the best they can, even you, and that everyone makes mistakes, even you.


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