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Scott M. Paton

The Devil's In the Details

Focus on the problem, not the person, when trying to resolve an issue.

 

 

In this month's "First Word" (see page 4), Dirk Dusharme discusses how easy it is to gloss over the little things. Unfortunately, the little things can add up to some serious consequences if left unchecked. Dirk sums up his editorial by making the point that processes should be designed to prevent the little errors from occurring in the first place. For example, I wrote this column using Microsoft Word, which is designed to catch many commonly misspelled words as I type them and automatically make the corrections. (I think there have been about 15 to this point.) However, Word cannot distinguish between "manager" and "manger." They're both words, and Word doesn't know which one I mean to use.

Word also has an annoying habit of changing words or characters into something I don't want. For example, the default setting on Word will automatically make bulleted or numbered lists when I start to type numbers with a period after them at the beginning of a new paragraph. Word will also suggest corrections to grammar that I know are incorrect because the program doesn't know the context of the sentence. It's my job as an editor and a writer to know what I mean to write and to write it correctly.

Most of us probably wish at some point that we had a Word-like editor for all the work that we do and even for all of the words that come out of our mouths. Wouldn't it be nice if some software program could correct your grammar just before the words came out of your mouth? Or if there were some device that made sure you always do your job perfectly every time?

Because we're made of flesh and blood and not silicon, that isn't likely to happen. We do have the benefit of experience, intelligence, training, education, forgiving co-workers and family, and, of course, divine intervention, to help us out. But, hey, we're only human; accidents happen.

So, although Dirk has made an excellent point about designing processes to avoid the little errors that add up, we should also be a little more tolerant of others when mistakes do occur. Have you ever had a boss who would lose it because you made a minor error? Have you been in line behind someone who threw a fit because the flight he or she was on was going to be 15 minutes late? How about the spouse who comes unhinged because you were five minutes late for dinner? (Sorry, dear.)

Lest you write me angry letters, I am well aware of my previous rants about Wal-Mart and others and my dissatisfaction with the service I received. Here's the difference: I described in detail the bad experiences I had, and I described the poor service I received from employees. However, I didn't take out my frustration on the employees. I may believe that they are unsuited for their work (e.g., unable to speak English in a key customer contact position), but I don't blame the employees for the organization's failure to properly design processes and place the right people in the right jobs.

It's not always easy to let the employee off the hook when you have a problem, but it often works. Here's a terrific example. I recently bought a new car, and just before driving off the lot, I discovered that it had two small dents on the hood. Honestly, I was mad as hell. How could they not tell me about this? I paid for a new, unblemished vehicle, not a dinged-up used one. I knew there was little I could do; I had already signed the contract and was ready to leave. I was prepared for a fight. The employee who had just washed the car and was drying it when I discovered the dings assured me that they would fix the problem. "Trust me," he said. "It will look brand-new."

My skeptical nature took over, so I marched back inside and sought out the sales manager. "What are you going to do about the dents on the car's hood?" I asked.

"We'll fix them, and you won't even know they were there," he replied. "Our body shop is fantastic."

I could have pitched a fit. I could have screamed and yelled. I could have demanded my money back and threatened to sue. But I decided to wait and see what they would do. I didn't have a very good feeling as I drove my new car off the lot. And, honestly, for the next few days as my car was in the shop, I was very nervous about how it would look.

When I picked up the car, I couldn't believe it. It looked brand-new. I absolutely cannot tell that the two dents had ever been there. I was so pleased that I went back inside and told the manager how pleasantly surprised I was.

Of course, there should have been a process in place to have prevented the dings from getting on the car and for inspecting the car for dings before I purchased it. This would have saved the dealer and automaker money, and would have resulted in less stress for me, the buyer. But I was happy with the result: The dealer kept his word and fixed the product to my satisfaction.

I realize this doesn't always happen, but it's sure great when it does. So, yeah, be sure to sweat the small stuff when it's your job to do so, just don't kill the messenger when things go to hell.

About the author
Scott M. Paton is Quality Digest's publisher.