Learn from Your Mistakes

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

From an early age, my father instilled in me rules that I was to live by—or else. Near the top of his list was one that has, and does, resonate with me almost every day. He explained that making mistakes was a natural part of the learning process—only those who do nothing can go through life and never make a mistake. Sound advice, but he did not stop there. Instead he continued to admonish me that making the same mistake twice was absolutely unforgivable. Admittedly I am not the brightest star in the universe and was somewhat of a slow learner in my early years. As a result, my father had more than one opportunity to reinforce his mandate that making the same mistake would not be tolerated. With repetition and some pain, I learned this invaluable lesson and today strive to learn from my mistakes and never, ever make the same one twice.

The reason this early lesson resonates with me almost every day is simple. As part of my profession, I am exposed to classic examples of the same mistake being made not just twice but too often tens or even hundreds of times. If the results were not so serious, some of these are so ridiculous that they are almost funny. Others are so catastrophic in nature that there is nothing funny about them.    

Consider the steel mill that manufactured a product that severely damaged critical production systems each time they ran it. When asked if they were aware of the damage this product produced, they acknowledged that they did. Why did they continue to produce it? It was a niche market; no one else would produce it so they had a captive market. Oh, by the way, their margins on this product were practically zero. Why would one elect to make a product that caused severe damage and then give it away?  

Or there was the food company that continued to run a critical packaging line after all of its timing belts and drive chains had stretched well beyond their limits. Even after repeated wrecks, they continued to run the line without ordering new belts and chains—until the line catastrophically failed. I wonder if they will repeat this mistake.
Another example of repeating mistakes: management teams that continue to listen to and act upon bad advice. Even when history clearly shows that the inner circle of advisors lack the ability to provide sound business advice, management continues to turn a blind eye to facts and continues to make decisions that limit success, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy. I once worked for a company owned and managed by three professors. Primarily because of this recurring mistake, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. The recovery plan filed with the courts offered a solution that the owners and their small inner circle of advisors thought would guarantee future success—the owners would change roles within the company. Each of the three owner-managers would assume a new role. Ted who was over engineering would move to marketing; Jim to manufacturing and Bert to engineering. The judge with a bit of a smirk on his face asked them if changing positions would make them any smarter. The reorganization plan was rejected.

I have never truly understood why it is so hard to learn from our mistakes. Granted, I hate to make mistakes but when a mistake is made, I am the first to acknowledge it and accept full responsibility. Perhaps this is because of my upbringing, but it is also the logical thing to do. If we cannot acknowledge our mistakes and with an absolute open mind understand how they occurred we are destined to repeat them over and over again. To my father and now to me, life is too short to be wasted on recurring mistakes.  

One common trait of highly successful companies is their ability to limit mistakes and never to make the same mistake twice. They are driven by knowledge gained from accurate, timely data—not the opinion of an inner circle of advisors who may or may not provide good advice. They have standard processes that isolate and identify mistakes—without placing blame or penalty—as well as provide a positive means of preventing repetition. In other words they are following the same mandate that my father impressed upon me—it is acceptable to make mistakes, but unforgivable to make the same mistake twice.

Mistakes are a part of learning and growth. Failure to learn from one’s mistakes assures stagnation and mediocrity. Never fear making mistakes. They are an inevitable part of change and growth—embrace them and use them to become smarter both as a person and as a company.

"Making the same mistake twice is unforgivable."

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,

R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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