Careful, Not Fearful Print E-mail
Written by Peter Bigelow   
Wednesday, 01 April 2009 00:00
Peter Bigelow

Uncertainty is a big distracter, so keep staff focused on standard procedures and process controls to avoid costly mistakes.

Some people are prone to a certain song becoming hauntingly stuck in their heads, repeating it over and over to themselves. I recently had a similar situation. Instead of music, it was two very different quotes that were haunting me.

The first quote was from the opening of the old television show “Hill Street Blues.” For those who do not remember that program, the show always began with the daily shift briefing. When the sergeant ended his briefing, his final words were always, “Let's be careful out there.” The second quote was from FDR’s famous first inaugural address in 1933. When, in the grip of the Great Depression, he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

So what caused me to be unable to escape hearing these quotes dancing together over and over, day in and day out, in my mind? Well, time for an out-of-school tale.

A simple event – or what should have been a simple event – unfolded a few weeks ago. A new customer came knocking on our door. This prospective customer was like so many we all have, the small company that is simply looking for a better mousetrap that ideally would be local. Not that this customer had any aversion to shopping globally, but, as the economy was contracting, he thought that maybe he could do his part to help the locals. Technology was not an issue, as is the case with most companies. What this company needed was mid-level technology and proven capability. So with all the best intentions, it appeared that both of our companies had found a good match.

However, we soon entered what I can only describe as something out of “The Twilight Zone.”

Product was quoted, a purchase order was received and off we marched with the simple goal of producing a job in three days. We accomplished this, save for the fact that the board failed electrical testing. Strike one. But the second order – a different part number quoted and produced separately – looked great and passed testing with flying colors. It’s too bad we produced the wrong rev! Strike two. It was about now that those two quotes began ringing in my ears – the same ears that turned bright red from frustration and anger whenever I thought about the total incompetence we had quickly demonstrated not once, but twice, to our new – now former – customer.

What caused these mistakes was simple. They were the result of simple errors in judgment, just a moment of forgetfulness, where one standard procedure was not followed. And the result was a total disaster for all!
Everyone makes simple errors, but two times in a row with the same customer? I was beside myself. Of all the times for the company to shoot itself in the foot, it had to be with a new customer, which in this shrinking economy is increasingly difficult to find. In seems, however, that in these tough times, it is increasingly difficult for people at all levels within a company to stay focused on the job at hand.

As managers of time and talent, we all need to make sure we are doing everything possible to help keep the disturbing economic noise in the background and the important tasks at hand on the forefront of our employees’ minds. That can be very difficult on a good day, say nothing of times like these. However, when the news gets too dismal, we need to think of FDR’s words “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” More importantly, we need to make sure our staffs fully understands that fear causes errors, which can make a bad situation even worse. It only takes one person to have a single momentary lapse that results in a single procedural control miss – causing a disaster.

This is probably why the other quote was also dancing around in my head. Indeed, we all have to be careful out there. In other words, be careful not to get distracted. As managers, we all have to make sure our staffs fully understand that they need to be focused on what is really important – and what they can control – at all times. We need to remind employees that being careful is even more necessary in these problematic times.
My story could have had a worse ending. As for my angry customer, he was far more understanding than he had any right to be. But then again, as we talked, he let it be known that he, too, had been there when everything that could go wrong did! We may have another chance to show what we can do when we are focused on the task at hand. As for the employees whose collective errors caused both disasters, they, too, realize that they need to be very careful out there all the time!

As for me, I am focused on the job of helping each of my employees stay focused on what we can control together – our company’s ability to satisfy our new and existing customers! PCD&F

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .





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