Engineer the Sh*t out of Errors – Everywhere

Errors. They’re everywhere, but they don’t have to spell disaster. In fact, they’re an opportunity for improvement, if you Engineer the Sh*it out of them. By everywhere, I mean in all functions of a company, not just product or operations.

A hallmark of a world-class organization is a mechanism that treats errors as they should be: imperfections in the systems or processes, not personal failings. One of the most famous is Amazon’s Correction of Errors (COE) mechanism. In a prior role, my team invented an analogous mechanism called EEC: “Engineering of Error Corrections”. The fun thing about EEC was it had a mascot because EEC is pronounced: “Eek!”

Engineering the Sh*t out of Errors is all about rooting out these imperfections and designing and implementing (aka engineering) solutions. It’s not about blame, but about improvement. It’s as much for the finance department as it is for HR or marketing. This is how we ensure our organization, as a whole, continually gets better.

This tried and tested practice should be applied to ALL aspects of a company, not just products and services: Finance, HR, Legal, Sales, Operations, Support, and even Facilities.

Case in point: A candidate was flown in for an interview. Six employees spent an hour each with the candidate. At the debrief it was quickly unanimous that the candidate wasn’t a fit. An error had occurred! We wasted time, and resources, and gave the candidate a less-than-stellar experience.

HR could have pointed fingers, but instead, the HR team turned to the EEC mechanism (Eek!). By asking the 5-whys, they discovered the error lay in conducting only one phone screen. The solution? HR engineered a new hiring process requiring two successful phone screens before an on-site interview.

Why does Engineering the Sh*t out of Errors work? It’s because it focuses on the cause, not the symptom. It helps us take a step back, look at the larger picture, and make changes that affect the system as a whole. It treats errors as what they are: opportunities to get better.

To make Engineering the Sh*t out of Errors more actionable for your organization, consider structuring your error corrections similarly to Amazon’s COE:

  1. What happened? Detail the error.
  2. What was the impact on customers, the business, and/or the organization? Discuss tangible and intangible effects.
  3. What was the root cause? Unearth the underlying issue that led to the error. Ask the 5-whys.
  4. What data do you have to support this? Use metrics and graphs to substantiate your findings.
  5. What were the implications relative to the organization’s tenets? Evaluate the error’s impact on your organization’s tenets (principles). This can really help ensure the corrective actions you take are aligned.
  6. What lessons did you learn? Articulate the insights gained from the error and the subsequent investigation.
  7. What corrective actions are you taking? Outline the action items and related items (like trouble tickets) for the solution you’re engineering.

Remember: an error is not a personal failure. It’s a crack in the system that gives us the chance to fortify the whole structure. So, stop blaming and start engineering, even if you’re not in an engineering role.

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