They say it takes just one “uh-oh, I screwed up” (or, in more of the vernacular, “oh —-”) to wipe out 1,000 “attaboys.” Some mistakes can be pretty spectacular. Some pretty quiet. But why is it they all stick with us? They follow us like our shadow, never knowing when they’re going to appear, and it doesn’t have anything to do with sunny days. Keep reading for two of mine…
With a previous employer, the client was furnishing its own windows for an opening in a tilt-up precast panel in an addition to its building. As a glazing contractor, we used leftover material from a unitized wall system on a job that had been completed recently and for which there was enough overage to use on our addition. The extruder agreed to make up for any shortages we might experience on a couple of dies (with no premium for minimum orders).
No big deal, really. The office panels were approximately 15’-0” tall, but the plant cafeteria windows is where the mistake happened. There were four lites in the vision area; the nominal dimension was 4’-0” x 9’-6” tall. So we (I) ordered the glass 48” x 96”. One small problem: 9’-6” is not 96”, it’s 114”. Ok, it’ll fit, but it leaves a vented “opening” in the 18” difference, which doesn’t provide much of an air and water barrier to the exterior. It’s one thing to screw up on something in the field that one or two people see, but for the shop and field guys to see it (not to mention every drafting person, the whole office crew and two shifts in the plant), I might as well have hung all the laundry out in plain view.
The second was a compounding error, one of those where a smaller error grows into something more serious. It was the cap on a ½” tempered glass handrail on an atrium stairway. The cap material was an 8” diameter oak. We bought the cap from a wood handrail / cabinetry supplier, and thought we had a good number. Our takeoff for the linear footage was a little bit higher than theirs (it was off about 10% as I recall) and should have raised a flag right, but didn’t. They insisted they had it all and that our takeoff was wrong. First mistake.
Then the company went belly-up before they completed the work. We had raw lengths of material, but not anywhere close to being ready for installation on the job. We had to pay the sheriff to get the material out of their shop. We stored it in our unheated shop. Second mistake.
Wood, once you start working it, needs to stay in conditioned space. Unheated aluminum shops are not the place to store wood, which in this case eventually split and caused some lengths to be scrapped. Bet you didn’t know wood can’t be taken to the junk dealers and sold for scrap like aluminum or steel can.
Eventually we found another wood supplier who would finish the job, got the right quantity takeoff, but in order to save some time and money, our company said we would do the finished length and cut drawings in-house. With an intermediate landing in the middle of the run of stairs, the glass handrail had parallelogram pattern cuts of glass on the diagonal sections, and rectangular pieces at the landing. So we dimensioned the caps to the distance of the top edge of the glass, mitering the pieces at the ends. And forgot all about the miter at the landings. Third mistake.
Long point to long point, the section of the cap at the top of the landing glass was about 2” shorter than it needed to be. I forgot all about working to the long point of the material, which was above the edge of the glass, and which made the cap want to be longer – by about 2” with the geometry of the miter. (Interesting sideline: this building is AIG’s corporate headquarters. If you’re in the neighborhood, go look at the atrium handrail screw-up.)
We were so behind the curve on the schedule and costs – having to play catch-up because of the supplier disappearing – the owner let us add a 2” extension onto it. Two stairs, four caps total, there’s a 2” chunk of wood added to each rail cap at the landing. You might not see it, but it sticks out to me. Both literally and figuratively every time it comes to mind.
Jerry Johnson has a great definition of experience, and from experiences like these, I think he’s got it exactly right: “Experience is what you get just after you needed it.”
Having to explain both of these situations to my boss was not easy. Talk about being on the carpet. Having your hat (or other body parts) handed to you or chewed upon is not my definition of fun. The handrail detail was particularly bothersome because we skipped checking the part drawings before releasing them to the supplier. On the glass, though, it had been checked and two of us made the same mistake. So we were both on that carpet. And if you knew Bill Swango, you can imagine how he could stretch this out; he really knew how to make you squirm. After thinking about it for what seemed like an eternity, he said, “You will NOT make that mistake again, will you?” That was all he said, and the only response I could come up with was, “NO, sir.” Shoot, I was glad I was still alive and hadn’t lost my job.
Mistakes, big or little, LEARN from them, resolve to never make them again, and go on. Take the time to look at all options before proceeding to rectify the error. Deal with it immediately. Hoping it will go away on its own will not only compound the effect, but also increase the costs that will have to be spent when you know well and good it’s got to be addressed. And don’t EVER forget the warning signs, the things that you’d do differently if given the same set of circumstances. Doing the same thing twice and expecting different results, that’s just plain stupid, or close to it, isn’t it???