• Matt

Errors Are Not Failures

I make mistakes. You probably make mistakes. We all make mistakes. If we keep on going and learn from our mistakes we are not failures, we are better. We might not make the same mistake again and we understand what we're doing a bit more each time. Experience comes from doing things - expertise comes from doing things wrong and learning from it.


I used to develop future safety critical systems for military aircraft and was particularly interested in the mechanics of failure and how to avoid failure. The technical literature talks about systems having or developing faults, which cause errors that eventually lead to failure where the system stops doing its job. You may have heard of the 'swiss cheese model' of safety systems. Think of a stack of slices of swiss cheese with randomly positioned, variously sized holes in each. A hole in a slice is a fault, holes lining up are errors a clear path all the way through is a failure. An engineer's job is to avoid as many holes as possible and put in place mechanisms to either stop holes lining up or to do something about them when they inevitably do.


There are lots of different sources of faults: development processes, organisational/cultural, poor materials, bad code and operational misuse. Equally there are many ways of catching faults before they make it into an operational system. Quality control in factories, development testing and project reviews are some early steps. Redundancy, monitoring and reconfigurable systems are operational system techniques.


I work solo most of the time and my work is usually reviewed on delivery to the customer. Perhaps mission rather than safety critical and I do have good clients who appreciate that my work is research & development, at low/medium Technology Readiness Level [see NASA] and a step in the process of learning. Faults and errors are good things to uncover in this type of work.


Fitting out The Geekery has been different. I'm the only customer at the moment and I'm pretty hard on myself. I'm also doing most of the work without anyone else overseeing it. I've made a few mistakes and a recent one was a whopper - really obvious and easy to have avoided.


I'd been given a large vinyl logo by the guys who did my signage. It was too small and was going to be thrown away, instead I decided to install it on a cabinet I freecycled. I stood the cabinet on its end on a table so I could be sure to align the logo and get it straight. I peeled and stuck, avoided too many bubbles and smoothed out most that did happen. I even scalpeled the logo to go over the vents, keyholes and gaps. At the end I was very pleased with myself. It looked awesome.


I lifted the cabinet back onto its feet and stepped back to take in my glory and immediately spotted a huge problem. Although the logo was straight, bubble-free and carefully cut into the structure - at was upside down. I'd forgotten to step back and review my setup before diving in to the execution. A school boy error that working in a team would probably avoided. Having more eyes on from different perspectives is crucial in any engineering project.


I decided to leave the logo as it was in all its upside-down glory. This is The Geekery's biggest reminder of what can go wrong. A permanent reminder to step back and review. To get more eyes on. To find different perspectives early on.


I have pledged to keep the physical reminders of my failures and display them proudly next to my successes. I want to show the process of errors leading to learning rather than failure. I've turned this error into a feature that teaches how to be a better Engineer. This will be part of the culture of The Geekery as a place of excellence and learning.



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