Most days, the sum of what we do is greater than all the promises we make.
I screwed up, simple as that. I didn’t intend to. I can’t believe I did such a dumb thing, but I did.
Potential excuses abound: It was the holiday season; there was a death in the family; my daughter had just become engaged; work was incredibly busy, etc. But, I had made a commitment, and had been reminded about the commitment, and when all the possible excuses are exhausted, it all boils down to one simple fact: I screwed up. I forgot to submit my column for the January issue of this magazine!
In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t rank as a big deal. (Some may even think, thank God!) Missing a deadline is not a life-or-death error. The sun will keep rising in the East and setting in the West. And besides, any pithy observations that might have been shared would soon have been forgotten anyway. I have no illusions my missed deadline impacted the world view one iota.
But, I failed a commitment – and that is important. Isn’t on-time delivery the centerpiece of what our combined supply chain is all about? How many of our customers accept poor on-time delivery – or even worse, as in my case, a “lost order” that is never delivered?
So, as I realized what had happened (or in this case, not happened) I began to think as I fear too many employees do when confronted by the “ah ha” realization that they screwed up. First comes denial, disbelief that the error took place. Second is the cover-up, searching through whatever data are available to see if someone else messed up. Third is the excuse – all the things happening at that time that might plausibly explain why. Finally comes acceptance. An error was made, coincided with consideration of how it happened and what can be done to prevent making that mistake again.
In my case, upon realizing that a commitment was missed, I went through a rather simple mental punch list while staring at a computer screen. In most of our companies, there is a more significant process, usually documented as part of the ISO protocol and almost always including an irate supervisor who walks the fine line of, on one hand, wanting to fire the employee for screwing up, while on the other wanting to use the error as a “teachable” moment. In my case there was no documented protocol and Mike Buetow, my “supervisor,” was far more gracious than I deserved.
While working through my mental punch list, it struck me how many times a day we make commitments to perform some task(s) within stated deadlines that may seem insignificant or trivial when made but have someone or a group of people on the other end relying on our following through, on time. How many such commitments do we make each day that we are late doing or break altogether because we forget, ignore or determine it is no longer worth the effort? By failing to honor our commitments, as minor as they may appear at the time, what kind of example are we setting with our friends, family, employees, suppliers and customers? Sometimes the sum of our actions is greater than any of the individual commitment, promise or tasks that consume most of our days. And that is important.
While most of those individual casual commitments we all make, day in and day out, may not decide success or failure or have a life-or-death consequence, viewed together they do paint a picture. And that picture is what those around us often judge us by. So when the big order is about to be placed, will they award it to the company, department, team or individual whose picture shows tardiness, lack of commitment or caring, or to those whose picture displays consistent attention to detail and on-time commitment? The tough realization is that the examples we set, no matter how inconsequential, communicate to those around us and provide an opportunity by which we may be judged.
Even more alarming is the fact that the place we spend most of our time, and therefore most likely make – and potentially break – the greatest number of informal commitments, is where we work. Therefore, the picture that we paint by our actions and inactions is viewed, digested and ultimately used as a benchmark by those we are trying to motivate and develop so they do not make such mindless screw-ups: our co-workers and employees! The picture we paint by our actions is a key component as to how we are judged by those we most want to motivate to be better. If we take commitments lightly, then why should they do otherwise? And if we are investing time and effort to assure our businesses honor and exceed their commitments, what message does it send when individually we don’t?
So, as I was working through my silent punch list trying to perform mental forensics as to how and why I messed up, I realized that I had just sent a picture to those around me, and it wasn’t a pretty one. And while missing a commitment did not cause the end of the world, or death or destruction, it does require reviewing my various commitment, scheduling and follow-through protocols to ensure there is not a next time.
And going forward, as desirable as attempting to impress others via some random acts of kindness may be, possibly instead, stopping and thinking about all the little day-to-day actions – commitments – we make, keep and occasionally break, and how they may be judged by those who connect the dots and look at the picture they paint, could be the most important thing we all do everyday.