How to Handle a Mistake

A colleague of mine recently had to make that most unpleasant phone call.  He had to call a client just before a board meeting and tell them there was an error in a calculation, that the information provided was wrong, and it would take some time to correct.  Needless to say, the client was not happy.  He delayed the presentation to the board until next month.

At the time, my colleague did not know whether the error would make a material difference in the result of the report, he only knew that it was wrong (the source data used was out of date).  He had to make a call.  He could have chosen to say nothing, hoping the impact would be minimal, and then explain it away as a “minor adjustment.”  If the impact was major, however, it would have been tougher to explain – perhaps trying the excuse of the “source web site was incorrect” – you know, blame someone else.  He could have also said he did not discover the error in time to notify the client (a boldface lie, but who would know – except him).  He could have chosen a number of ways to hide the mistake and attempt to explain it away later, but he didn’t.  He chose to have a little integrity, fess up to the issue, make the change and move on.

When he explained the situation to me and what he did, my response was simple, “what in our system failed that allowed us to make this mistake?”  After some discussion, we are putting together a simple checklist to help prevent this in the future.

Whether we are still retained by this client remains to be seen, but my colleague can sleep at night knowing he did the right thing.

Let me know your thoughts!


4 thoughts on “How to Handle a Mistake

  1. Glenn,

    first off, congratulations to your colleague for taking responsibility for the mistake. Its easy to blame some external force or to make up an excuse. The problem with excuses is that it prevents the person from taking a good hard look at the mistake and learning their own lessons from it. Its only when you yourself can admit mistakes that you can learn the type of lessons no one else can teach you. There are some lessons people can only learn for themselves. So congratulations to your colleague for taking the opportunity to learn himself a lesson.

    Two additional comments.

    One, its a shame that education, business literature and the popular press rarely discuss mistakes. People, understandably shun failure, but that is where lessons are learned. As William Blake famous wrote:

    Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
    And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.

    Two, maybe processes have gone too far. Deming spoke of systemic vs special case errors. Nassim Taleb almost writes from the opposite perspective. Maybe we’ve taken Deming’s thinking too far. We’ve tried to create processes to prevent every error that we’ve removed individual responsibility. We’ve Deming’ed ourselves into the Milgram Experiment. (

    I’m all for processes that raise the bar on performance, but sometimes I think the motivation for process development is avoiding responsibility.

    • Andy,

      Excellent point on #2 – We can definitely take things too far to try to precisely define a process, which is why I like a checklist approach rather than a detailed process (or work instruction) in situations like this. Detailed processes are fine when it comes to assembling products, as the parts have been precisely designed to fit together in a certain way, and following the detailed process will produce a standard product, which in most cases these processes are highly repeatable with limited or predictable variability. But in cases where the components have not been engineered to assemble the same way every time the ‘assembler’ is functioning more as a craftsman, and must use their individual skill and intuition to complete the product, which is usually the case in most service areas where the components are human behaviors / interfaces.

      This is where I like the checklist approach. It does not give the detail, but it does provide thought starters and reminders to help reduce the opportunity for errors. It’s at a much higher level than the detailed process, and requires the user to be able to adapt and adjust to conditions.

      Problems arise when practitioners attempt to force detailed process work instructions onto those processes for which they are not applicable.

      Thanks for the comments!


  2. Thank you both Glenn and Andy for sharing your thoughts about how to handle mistakes. I’d like to ask a question about this issue. Does the working environment or the organizational culture has any influence on how an individual will react to his/her own mistakes? Would it depend on how tolerant is management to making mistakes? I suppose that the less tolerant we might be the more prone to blaming on someone or something else for their mistakes.

    • Pablo,

      I think the environment and culture absolutely factor into how someone will handle a mistake. But I have seen managers in those types of organizations who have found a new respect for an employee who “owned” up to one. It may or may not help you career in that organization, but sometimes that is a risk of “doing the right thing”.

      Thanks for the comments!


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