ORG Blog

4 Proven Ways to Prepare for and Overcome First Mistakes

It is not the “first mistake” that creates problems, and even hazards. It’s all the other mistakes that can follow. Allow me to explain.

Let's face it, life isn't perfect. Nor are people, processes, organizations, businesses or manufacturing teams. We just aren't. We naturally try to pretend if we all just did everything a certain way, all would be well. In truth, what we see as perfect, what we point to, benchmark with, or try to copy is really an ideal. What we aspire to is really not perfect –rather, it is flexible. So when I say “perfect,” I really mean “flexible;” your people, processes, and equipment can adapt to an unexpected change in the environment.

For the last 30 years, I have worked in many different manufacturing environments, worked with multiple unique teams, and have been exposed to a diversity of processes and procedures. The main theme I have seen in what was most successful has been the ability to recover quickly from the inevitable “first mistake”.

Here are four ideas you can use to promote the ability to recover from the inevitable first mistake:

1. Pay close attention to specific items that are Not Recoverable.

These are the key items you focus on to reduce risk. “Not recoverable” items are non-negotiable. Period. If you can think of a reason why you would trade-off and take the risk, then it shouldn't be on the non-negotiable list. For example, facility safety is non-negotiable. Your equipment lock-out procedures are non-negotiable because the risk of a loss of life or severe injury is not recoverable. Another example would be your integrity. Falsifying test results or cutting a corner here or there is not recoverable because when trust is lost, it is very hard to regain. Once you and your team have created the “non-negotiable list,” you prevent the "slippery slope of expediency syndrome" that can lead to catastrophic failure.

2. Have a plan B, and C, D, E…

Expect that the unexpected will happen. People, equipment, structures and processes can (and will) err. It happens. Knowing the path that allows the facility to recover quickly is the key. A nautical analogy is that you don’t call a crew meeting and decide on the required number of life-boats and create an emergency evacuation procedure in the middle of the storm. When the waves are 20’ high, it’s time to execute your plan. Taking precious time to figure out the next best right move in the middle of the “first-mistake” leaves the team vulnerable to making a second mistake that could cause your facility to spin into catastrophic failure. Anticipate. Have a plan. Test the plan. Follow the plan. Adapt the plan as needed.

3. Use mistakes to learn and shore up holes.

A healthy work environment embraces the “first mistake” as a way to encourage people to learn. However, more importantly, it allows the team to admit the mistake and make the mistake visible so it can be addressed. Early detection that there is a crack in the system, process, or procedure allows all the safety nets to be deployed. When people hide that first mistake, or simply ignore that it happened with the hope no one will notice means the team cannot react and correct course.

4. Clearly define what the end-game is.

In the business world, there are many seemingly competing goals – financial, sales, manufacturing, marketing… sometimes they can be in conflict. There is the famous saying, “Cost, quality, speed - pick any two.” So compromise – what are you willing to trade-off? (Remember in #1 above, you identified the non-negotiables, so you can confidently identify effective trade-offs) What truly defines the success of the team? Until the team clearly articulates its definition of success, it cannot understand what trade-offs to make. Because perfect, as defined here, really means being flexible.

In summary, perfection isn’t really an end-point, but rather it’s about the journey. A robust team, process, or manufacturing system is flexible enough to absorb the life’s imperfections – and that is what I call “perfection.”


About Melissa Holobach

Over the last three decades, Melissa has learned that strategy and execution are two sides of the same coin – both are required to achieve optimal results. While she has worked in strategy and corporate governance, most of her career has been in various roles in manufacturing. Currently, she is a General Manager for a large manufacturing site responsible for all aspects of delivering a product safely, meeting the quality and schedule expectations of their customers at a price point required by their owners. Her job is to develop practical operational strategies that her team can execute to achieve tangible results.

Throughout her career, Melissa has had many great mentors that have shared their experiences. As a result, she never turns down a request to give back to others through coaching and mentoring. A little over a year ago she realized that social media could be an avenue to share what she has have learned with more people. Her blog, Melissa's Corner, Leadership and then some, shares things that she believes make a manufacturing team strong and healthy. Visit her blog at:



Topics: Leadership Sustainable Change