From mistakes to success

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Understand that most problems are a good sign. Problems indicate that progress is being made, wheels are turning, that you are moving toward your goals. Beware when you have no problems. Then you've really got a problem. Problems are like landmarks of progress.” –Scott Alexander

We’re conditioned in this country to view all mistakes as terrible, awful things – and of course, in more than a few cases, that’s the right view. We certainly don’t want to hear the word “Ooops” uttered by a commercial jetliner pilot on final approach during a pelting, wind-driven rainstorm, for example; nor is it a word we EVER want to encounter during any form of surgery.

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In trucking’s corner of the world, of course, mistakes can often lead to serious consequences, not the least of which are crashes – and any sort of accident involving 80,000 pounds traveling at highway speeds is bound to leave damage in one form or another in its wake.

Yet mistakes are perhaps humanity’s best teaching tool; I myself know this to be true from the other part of my life as a youth soccer coach.

You can talk to a kid until you are blue in the face about the importance of first touch on the ball or properly weighted passes. Yet when a kid makes a mistake in either of those areas in a game, leading to a missed scoring opportunity or – worse yet, for them – a goal for the opposing team, you can BET they will never forget why those skills are critical again.

That’s of course why the concept of soccer PRACTICE exists – to allow players the opportunity to screw up royally and then recognize the consequences of said screw up, without the fear of winning or losing clouding the picture. Indeed, most of the soccer leagues my kids participate in don’t start maintaining divisional rankings until the kids are 11 or 12 years old – largely to give them time to learn, through their mistakes, how to properly play the game.

There’s a similar philosophy at work in the trucking community, of course, for why else is technology such as driving simulators becoming a more widely used driver training tool? It is so rookies and cagey veterans alike can work on shifting and maneuvering skills in an environment where mistakes can lead to improvements, for it is far better to strip the gears or crack a sidewalk curb in the virtual world than it is in real life.

“As human beings, it is natural to enjoy success, but these good feelings are fleeting,” notes Jerry Osteryoung, professor emeritus of finance with the College of Business at Florida State University, in one of his columns recently. “Mistakes, on the other hand, have a much bigger impact. Their effects tend to stay with us much longer.”

He believes a person's success can be five times bigger than their error, but the odds are they will remember the error and forget the success. “Using this knowledge, we can help staff overcome their mistakes in a positive way,” Osteryoung emphasizes.

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Too often, he hears manager’s talk about how they wish their staff would not make mistakes because errors decrease productivity.

“This may be true, but mistakes also create coaching opportunities, which are invaluable,” Osteryoung (at left) notes.

And he points to an experience of his own as a young worker as a vivid example of how the “standard response” to mistakes may not actually help prevent errors from occurring in the future.

“Many years ago I was working as an outside plant engineer in Tampa, FL, designing the cable layout for the telephone company and making a multitude of decisions to ensure necessary communications,” Osteryoung explains. “Determining cable size and pole location are just a couple examples.”

On one design, he says he completely underestimated the size of the cable and specified a 200 pair cable when it should have been a 600 pair cable.

“Just before the supplies were purchased for the job — which would have cost millions of dollars — my boss caught my error,” Osteryoung recalls. “He chewed me up one side and down the other without stopping for even a second to talk about how this error occurred or how it could be avoided in the future. He thought yelling at me would stop me from making the same mistake again.”

He was partially right, Osteryoung points out.

“My reaction to this situation was to begin asking for his OK on every decision that could have a major impact. No doubt, this was a nuisance for him, but it kept me out of hot water,” he relates. “And his bullying other effects, too. One, it killed any desire in me to be innovative and original in my thinking. My only concern now was staying out of trouble. And two, it ultimately pushed me to leave the company and start working toward my MBA [Masters of Business Administration degree].”

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Note the import of Osteryoung’s reactions here: he didn’t so much as breathe without getting his boss’s OK, slowing down not only his productivity but that of his manager; he didn’t take any chances trying to find new or more efficient ways to do things that might help his company save or make more money; and, most critically, it convinced him to ultimately jump ship.

Think about these reactions in terms of the truck driver’s position: of drivers unwilling to be a self-starter or show initiative, ultimately just waiting for the right chance (for them) to go drive for somewhere else, because of a “nuclear response” on the part of managers and others to mistakes.

This isn’t to say ALL mistakes are excusable or that offenders must be treated with kid gloves. But recognize now that mistakes, in many ways, are going to be unavoidable.

Just look at the changes going on in the overall truck driver population. It’s a fair bet that almost any new candidate getting behind the wheel of a big rig today never learned how to operate a manual transmission as a kid. Thus, they don’t even have experience shifting their way through five or six gears, much less the basic 10-speed used by most fleets. Thus, a lot more patience is going to be required getting new drivers comfortable – and then super efficient – with manual shifting.

“The truth is mistakes are inevitable,” says Osteryoung. “You can use them either to tear the employee down or help create a positive learning experience, which is the key to being a great manager and leader.”

It’s also the key to retaining employees for the long term, keeping their talents working to make your trucking business – whatever it might be – keep improving on down the road.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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