Monday, September 18, 2006

Mistakes Will Be Made

But how do you deal with them? One of the most important questions I posed to candidates for 2 jobs I was filling was "How would you deal with discovering a serious problem in data that had already been released to the public?"

For those of us who produce "official" data, finding a mistake after the fact is a worst nightmare. These data are used for allocating funds, for determining policy, for informing companies about the demographics of an area. A mistake could cause untold hardship for data users and the general public.

The candidates I interviewed all said the right thing, noting a series of steps: determine the extent of the problem, tell all the relevant people, find the source, propose a solution, fix it, put steps in place to avoid it in the future. It makes you slightly nervous to even talk about this in the hypothetical.

But we got to experience this first-hand on Friday when one of my employees found a problem with data we had released 2 months ago. Staff worked all weekend to assess the impact of the problem and to correct it. It turned out to have negligible effect on the data, but we didn’t know that initially and you always imagine the worst.

Ironically I was at a dinner party with a prominent data user on Saturday night. He was singing the praises of our data, going on and on about what he is doing with them. At one point, he said to me, "The data as they were released are final, right?" My husband who had overheard looked at me to see how I would respond. I simply dodged the question, not wanting to say anything before I knew the extent of the problem and the position my agency would take on it.

I must say I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the word came down yesterday that there was virtually no change in the data products we had released. It could have been so much worse.
I have once again concluded that my interviewees were absolutely correct: full disclosure and honesty is the ONLY policy. Anything else will only lead to trouble.

I suppose I will need to look for another reason to retire since I am not getting canned over last week’s problem...

How about you? Had any experience 'fessing up to a mistake made by you or someone who works for you?


Blogger Old Lady said...

I work with numbers all the time. That's the only way to deal with it, fess up and fix it.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I agree with OL. I also work with numbers. Whenever there's a problem, I admit it and do whatever I can to make it right. Doesn't even matter if it's my fault. It just needs to be fixed.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

Honesty and confessing are the only ways to handle anything in life. In my job as a Gr. 1-3 teacher you really only make small mistakes like spelling on the board and then you just kid around using the old, "Oh, you guys are so sharp! You caught that and I did it on purpose just tp try and see who noticed!" HA! Of course, with the older kids, you say the same thing and have a good laugh over it since both the kids and teacher know what really happened. It's okay because usually it's not a big deal, it just shows them that it's okay to make a mistake, everyone does.

9:35 PM  
Blogger wharman said...

Fairly late in life I took my first restaurant gig and was often cited as the managers' favorite employee. I screwed up all the time so I asked them why in the world they thought I was so good. Their answer? Because when you mess up you're honest about it. A valuable lesson to learn when the stakes aren't so high.

I'm glad your problem turned out to be a fly in the nose and not a big marble.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Oh, come on, there must be someone out there who would advocate cover-up! Isn't that what most government agencies are known for?

I was actually quite proud to work where I do today when in meetings with people at very high levels about this, they invariably wanted there to be NO public perception that we were hiding a problem, albeit one as miniscule as this one is. We came up with the perfect strategy to keep the agency totally honest and maintain the same high quality of data we have always been known for. I do love my job!

OL, Kristin, MOI, Wendy -- I find it interesting that the 5 of us come at this from very different jobs, including a teacher of young kids and a food services worker and we all have learned the same lesson.

10:08 PM  
Blogger Old Lady said...

There's plenty out there who will cover up.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Everyman said...

I was a Chef for a long time and the incident that comes to mind for me was the day that a cook accidentally stabbed a 16 year old dishwasher. It was just a small wound on the shoulder. There was a certain amount of horseplay involved and no real hostilities. The General manager wanted to try to bury the incident and not tell the lads mother. I insisted that we go for full disclosure. His mother was not at all understanding and made him quit working there, but I hate to think what she may have done had she seen the wound and gotten to the bottom of the cover-up.steve

5:00 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I have occaisonally been accused of being too slow to inform people of problems. This is because I study the problem first before raising it to a higher level to ensure I have all the facts and can give a good accounting of all the details. I have learned that it is better not to get upper management all in a tizzy since they have a tendency to call meetings and start asking questions and basically become meddlesome (especially if they start offering direction or want frequent updates).

Fortunately, I have never had a serious error that precipitated any sort of corrective action or recall.

I agree that full disclosure is vital, however, it is not possible to give full disclosure if all the facts are not in, so I prefer to give a vague warning along the lines of "I am currently looking into something I thought I may have noticed, I will let you know when I have more information." After I have studied the situation, I state the issue and give possible remedies.

I usually find that problems are rarely as serious as people make them out to be.

Definitely employees need to keep management abreast of what is happening. I know I am defnintely not their favourite status bearer since I constantly show the slowest progress in my reports. But, this is a difference between the way I report things and the way others report them - for example, I frequently assert that I am only 20% done, when others are claiming 50%, 60% or more. However, I never get stuck at the limbo of claiming for 3 weeks that I am 95% done, but small issues keep coming up.

11:12 AM  
Blogger DC Cookie said...

The fact that you used data correctly in the plural is so incredibly refreshing.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Everyman -- Is that what is meant by "brutally honest"? Seriously, it was a tough choice for those of you involved and I agree that anything less could have resulted in protracted legal issues. I wonder how the victim felt after all was said and done.

Richard -- You and I are so in sync on this issue. In my discussion with high-level management, we concluded the same thing you recommended. No loose ends.

Cookie -- I've missed you! My Latin teacher worked hard to drill those neuter plurals into our heads. It's interesting that I first used a singular verb because I know that is what most people reading this would expect, but I saw old Mrs. Lindley shaking her finger at me.

7:51 PM  

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