Sept. 21 2010 03:24 PM

In my May/June Reality Check column, I compared the United States Postal Services' Full-Service Intelligent Mail program to the Boston "Big Dig." I basically "vented" by calling the baby ugly. While the "baby" is still young, I made a mistake in not realizing that with the proper attention and nurturing, the cygnet has the potential to grow up into a beautiful swan. The USPS graciously reacted to my "rant" by offering many hours of attention and help to identify problems and work towards mutual solutions.

While this is the political mudslinging season, John Wittig, Ph.D., professor of public relations for the University of Alabama in Birmingham, noted, "The easiest way to get your message across in 15 seconds is to say something negative." Since the "Big Dig" article, I learned that while I did get attention, and those tactics are likely to continue for politicians, I prefer to keep my hands (and pen) out of the mud. As Ross told Rachel on a Friends episode in 2002, "All babies have that ugly stage." Rachel's response was, "Funny how you never grew out of it!" How can I grow and learn from this experience?
"Americans tend to see the world in terms of problems and solutions," according to Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz in Everything's an Argument. If you're in business, at one time or another, you've made a mistake and have had to recover from it.

Do these sound familiar?
--My computer did not translate the time correctly from Central to Eastern and I missed yet another conference call.
--I hit send before attaching the document.
--I pulled the wrong information from a field in a spreadsheet and sent out bad information.

The list goes on and on. 

I don't wake up and think of ways I can make mistakes. I generally "stress out" when I make a mistake, and what is worse, I beat myself up over them! A business associate recently told me, "It's more important to find out how a person (or company) reacts when they've made a mistake since everyone makes mistakes - Wanda, you are human and like me, you are just going to make mistakes."

I know some people feel better when they soften the emotional negativity associated with "mistake" to use terms such as: fumble, blunder, dropped-the-ball, off-quality, nonconformance, problem, goof, oops, slip-up, whoopsies-daisy, or lemon-laced loss and temporary insanity. Regardless of the semantics, just what do you do?

I researched tips from business experts published in IEE Spectrum, Harvard Business Review, CIO, Newspaper Association of America and several blogs. I found that regardless of industry; printing, mailing, sports or medicine, all the experts recommend similar solution steps to recover quickly and minimize recurrence.

1. Notify someone - quickly. Assess how serious the mistake is while keeping things in perspective. The sooner you get someone involved, the sooner you can work on a solution.
2. Admit fault and apologize. If it was your mistake, do not put the blame on someone else - even if they may have contributed to the error. If you delay working on the solution you will only become more stressed and add to the potential for more problems later. Recover composure and avoid falling into emotional potholes.
3. Plan of action to correct the mistake. Because every problem will occur in a different situation, you need to ask, who needs to know? Ask the key people impacted by the mistake what they would do; it will get them to buy in and then act. Refocus and concentrate on the next task.
4. Learn from your mistakes. Susan Halden-Brown in Human Kinetics stated, "When you manage your mistakes, you manage your life." "After the dust settles, determine why you goofed and what you've learned from the experience and fix whatever caused the problem," sound advice from Carl Selinger author of Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School.

Quality Improvement suggests gathering a team of people to review the situations for root causes asking why five times to
get past symptoms and identify underlying causes.
Patricia Wallington with CIO asks, "How could the problem have been avoided? [N]eed more information, wider participation, better discipline, tighter controls, better judgment, [or] a better sense of timing?"

I don't have a solution in five words or less for how I'm going to manage through the Full-Service Intelligent Mail transformation from cygnet to swan, but I do know that I am not alone in developing solutions.
Wanda Senne is the National Director of Postal Development for World Marketing. Contact her at or 770-431-2591.