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20 Mar 2020, 15:39

Living an Error Culture

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who works in a no-blame organization. But we are all not living in a no-blame society, and most of us are afraid to make errors. The truth is: We all make mistakes, and if you don’t make mistakes, you can’t make decisions (Warren Buffett). So what is a positive error culture?

Let’s have a look at what is a bad error culture:

You run a startup, and your business idea simply does not work. Investors and friends no longer see you as an upcoming superstar, instead, you are a failure. Instead of encouraging you to develop your ideas, they blame you.

A younger colleague and member of the team you are leading makes a mistake that may risk the success of your current project. You could sit together and discuss how more experienced colleagues might help to get rid of the mistakes. But you decide to blame her and leave her in fear of the consequences.

The same young engineer makes a second mistake. Having learned from your last reaction, this time, she tries to hide the errors and problems away from you carefully. Instead of dealing with the problem, it is secretly advanced into the future where it will pop up with even more massive consequences.

Errors always teach us a lesson

The Greek Biographer and Essayist Plutarch lived in the first century. He wrote: “To make no mistakes is not in the power of man, but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.”

By naming and admitting a mistake, we have a chance to learn from it so that we can avoid it in the future. Let’s have a look at an example:

You may have read my articles about the “Useless Machine 2” (UM2). If not, have a look at them. You may recall that there existed a “Useless Machine 1” which spoiled the booth of a well known electronic distributor with frying oil during a major trade show. Learning from that accident, UM2 was developed to avoid the pitfalls of UM1. But alas, the acrylic containers of UM2 only survived one trade show. During transport, they got severe cracks although they where mounted on a rigid metal framework. Oil was leaking again, causing a big mess. Is this the end of Useless Machines? We say “no”!. This machine is so cool that we want it as the next DesignSpark exhibit on the RS's Titan truck. So let’s learn from the problems.

The next version “UM3” is under construction, and it will get borosilicate glass tubes and containers. This means more effort and more cost, but it will be worth it. Borosilicate glass is a very durable and hard material that is used for industrial tubular sight glasses.

Errors are a chance to advance

Making no errors sometimes encourages you to leave things untouched (“never touch a running system”). But that also means stagnancy in technology. So why not embrace a mistake as a challenge to think of new ways to innovate?

Our UM2 suffered from stressing the RevPi Linux controller with PWM outputs for each single LED in the system (and we had dozens of them). With a cycle time of more than 4 ms, swelling light intensity combined with chasing effects were not possible. The USB camera’s driver was buggy, and thus we had to switch off all lights during picture analysis phases. This was a compromise which slowed down the whole process of controlled filling and emptying of the containers.

UM3 will have two powerful industrial USB cameras with electronic focus lenses and a driver offering full control over all camera functions. So we will be able to switch off auto-white-balancing and auto-gain. We have much better colour detection from these cameras, even with colourful LED effects switched on. The LEDs will no longer be directly controlled by the RevPi but will get several dedicated small embedded controllers that communicate via Modbus TCP with the Linux system. This will be an excellent example of the concepts of industrial communication and the base for several articles.

Problems can be turned to features: The Aikido principle

At a certain point in my life, I’ve learned to use the power of my enemies instead of trying to fight against their strengths. This is, by the way, one of the principles of the Japanese martial arts called Aikido. An Aikido fighter uses the momentum of his enemy’s attack and channels it in such a way that it will cause harm to the offender. Now try to see the problems as your enemies. You don’t need to fight against them. You don’t need to hesitate or resign because you cannot find ways around it. Why not trying to use the problem and make a solution or even a feature out of it?

When I was running a motorcycle customizing workshop together with my son Enrico my task was the vehicle’s electric components. For one of our bikes, he had made a beautiful back fender with just 10 mm space between the fender’s inside and the tyre’s rubber. Not enough for hidden backlight wiring. But having the installation on top would be more than ugly. There was no acceptable solution at hand, and we started getting frustrated by this problem. I remembered our Aikido principle, and we created a beautiful detail using brass cap nuts and a cotton sleeved cable. It became one of the extraordinary features of this bike.

The UM2 had to fight against problems with changing ambient light situations. For the UM3 we will avoid this problem by having the complete system in a black coloured box. For what I can already see in my workshop, this is going to be a one-of-its-kind eye-catcher. The problem becomes a unique feature!

Please let me know about your experiences with problems and mistakes. This is a community and discussions or comments are more than welcome. And if you are curious about UM3: Stay tuned and watch my articles on DesignSpark.

Volker de Haas started electronics and computing with a KIM1 and machine language in the 70s. Then FORTRAN, PASCAL, BASIC, C, MUMPS. Developed complex digital circuits and precise analogue electronics for neuroscience labs (and his MD grade). Later database engineering, C++, C#, hard- and software developer for industry (transport, automotive, automation). Ended up designing and constructing the open source PLC / IPC "Revolution Pi". Today engaged in advanced development as a service.

20 Mar 2020, 15:39