OOPS! Recognising errors and improving processes

We’ve all experienced embarrassing moments when something happens that makes our heart sink.I call these “oops” moments. These are usually most uncomfortable when something significant has gone wrong, occurring as a result of your own actions with unintended consequences. These recollections will help to explain what I have learned from just such an experience.

t was during 2002 that OMS built a device to measure pipe cross-sections that were being bent in trials to see what effect this would have on the ovality of the pipe. This tool was the sixth in a long line of devices that I had been involved with since 1987. The instrument was used successfully by a major offshore installation contractor for their trials, so I decided to commission another tool to market and sell. The previous version was designed in such a way that it was extremely difficult to assemble so I had the device rearranged internally in order to address this point. Someone working in the US contacted me with a view to going out to a site in Alabama to demonstrate how we might help solve their problem. Given that I had no experience in the subject, we finally agreed that the client would pay my airfare and I would do the job for free. Apart from accidentally going into one of the dangerous areas of Mobile, Alabama, that it is not advisable to go into, things went very well and I came back with the measurements and had to write my report. However, there was a problem that I had put to the back of my mind during testing and which became apparent during the work out there. Put simply, when we redesigned the instrument, the optical encoder was rotated so it faced the opposite direction. Unfortunately, I did not debug the software carefully enough and I did not notice that the software needed to be changed to accommodate the change. Also, I only saved the measurement data after having made various changes for the encoder and the inclinometer angle corrections. Once the realisation that there was something wrong, it also became clear that vital information was lost forever. I could determine which pipe would fit with another, but I could not say how much to rotate the pipe by in order to get the best fit. Fundamentally, I was only able to deliver less than half of the result that the client wanted. This was an “oops” moment.

So, what did I do about this embarrassment? Well, I could have reversed the sign in the calculation, literally only seconds of work, but I did not. I decided that I would have to be able to recover from any similar mistakes in the future, and believe me, this has been necessary since then! I decided to save all of the raw data and the settings in each file so that there were no magic internal hidden calculations. With this system, it would always be able to recover from a mistake in a setting or in programming. I also started to use rigorous procedures that would prove that the angle corrections from the inclinometer and the encoder were working correctly. Harder work, but definitely the right thing to do.

Just as an aside on heart-stopping moments like this, an uncle once told me that when he was young and his father was away working, he cut out a pair of shafts for a horse driven carriage (my grandfather bought a coachbuilding business in 1937 and even when I was a child, my father was still shoeing horses and we were still repairing wooden wheels and shrinking tyres onto them as had happened in the business for centuries). His “oops” moment came when he realised that he had finished cutting both of the shafts out using a hand saw from the only available piece of timber, but he had made them both hand the same way, so both for one side of the horse and not for the other.

This uncle, who was my partner in our family business for 8 years, had a kit for a voltmeter which was in parts. Whilst the uncle was away, as I was interested in electronics, I asked whether I could wire it up and get it working. I was probably around 12 or 13 at the time and spent an interesting afternoon on my own with soldering iron and wire. By the time my uncle returned, I had the entire wiring complete. His reaction when he saw it wasn’t what I was expecting: “you chump”, he exclaimed. I had wired everything up correctly, but had neglected to put insulation on any of the wires, all of which were in contact with each other.

This was highly embarrassing. The issue though is not whether you make mistakes or not, but how you react to them. Returning to my “oops” moment with the pipe measurement tool, as I had developed the software and the hardware to measure pipes, within the space of 12 months I was able to quote for and get a contract with Technip to measure some 2,400 pipes in Egypt and then use the software to ensure that the pipes fitted together properly onboard the Deep Blue Pipelay vessel. A year later I gained another larger contract to measure pipes in Mexico where these pipes were destined to be welded together for a critical section of pipework offshore in Angola. We also ended up working for the company that we experimented with in Mobile and have conducted a large number of projects with them throughout the world since then.

Lessons learned:

 

  • Do beat yourself up – use the energy of the failure to drive you never to repeat the mistake again
  • Don’t give up - a setback is not the end, you may have many setbacks before you achieve success
  • Never assume anything - put in place systems that allow you to check properly everything is working properly

 

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