Why mistakes are often the best way to learn!
I knew something was wrong as soon as I opened the door that led from the factory floor into the engineering office.
It felt almost like a scene out of a western movie. The well known one when the new sheriff walks into the saloon. The heads of the patrons turn round, card games disrupted, and the sounds of the tinkling piano peters out. My colleagues at their desk, playing the role of the bar’s patrons to a tee.
Standing beside my desk, with a printed circuit board (PCB)in his hand was my manager. Along side him, staring intently at a particular area on the PCB were two of the senior engineers.
These were the first words out of my boss’s mouth as he stepped out to meet me.
“Do you know that batch of two thousand circuit boards that you ran through the soldering lines last month?”
“Well, I think we have got a problem with one of the capacitors on the board. It is the wrong way round. We are getting the design team to check, but there is a risk it will explode when the module is powered on”.
At this point his opening words of “Don’t Panic”, seemed powerless to stop the rising tsunami of dread that was rising within me. “
“This is it!”, I thought, “I’m dead, I am going get sacked”.
It is true what they say. Time does seem to stretch and stand still in those situations.
I was only a few weeks into my third year industrial placement out of university. After a pretty tough assessment centre and recruitment process, I had secured a role in the Process Engineer team as the marquee employer in the area. All I could think about was how I was going to explain to my lecturers, my parents and worst of all my classmates, how I had managed to get sacked so quickly.
My life, well at least my career, flashed before my eyes. Within a few steps and the opening of a door, I had gone from a happy-go-lucky engineering student, with dreams of hitting the golf course at 4pm, to a nervous wreck with visions of living as a down and out.
My mind was scurrying to make sense of the situation. Trying to figure out why the component was on the wrong way round. Trying to work out how to keep my mistake hidden from my fellow placement students. Trying to formulate some sort of reasonable explanation that would save my skin.
My manager broke into my panicked focus as he motioned for me to go round to the next bay where the Quality team sat. Already one of the inspectors was running through the specifications of the suspect component.
As I stood impatiently waiting, hoping, no praying, for some sort of good news that would provide pardon or exoneration, my boss “lightened” the mood with with these words.
“Do you know how much each of these boards are worth?”
“Not sure”, I muttered. Clinging onto the hope it was an amount with few zeros.
“I think they are about £1250 each”, he said in a flat tone.
My mental calculator, fueled by a mixture of adrenaline and cortisone, quickly arrived at a figure of £2,500,000 for the entire batch of two thousand.
“I am definitely dead now”, I thought. My contract was only £9,950 for the entire year. I simply had no answer or comment. The scale of the finances, were beyond what my student level economic experience could fathom.
At this point, I may have as well been staring Darth Vader in the mask, as I felt the collar of my shirt tighten and my breathing shallow.
After what seemed like a curtailed eternity, the Quality inspector broke the silence.
“Yeap, it is definitely on the wrong way round!” he said with a tone of neutral certainty.
“I have checked the batch records and the same thing appears on all two thousand units, all of which have now shipped to customer”.
“Right well, that’s not good news” said my boss. “Let’s hope the test team have better news. They are checking if these things will explode and how big the bang will be.”
This all happened twenty years ago this month in July 1999, but as I recount the details of that morning, I can still feel the sense of sickness and panic in my stomach as a physical reaction now. My heartbeat raises slightly and I quickly want to shut the door in my mind on that episode.
In the grand scheme of things, of course, the situation was never actually as bad as it felt then. My peers studying medicine would experience much deeper reaching consequence as they made their teething errors. However for me in that moment, it was my worst day at work.
To taste the bitter sting of failure and shrink under the perceived disapproval of my peers, was unpleasant beyond measure. I felt what ever little professional, academic and social credibility I had built crumble through my fingers. I felt I would always walk through the offices to the beat of heads turning and muted voices saying “That’s the guy that…….”
For those reading who don’t like unfinished business. The results showed that the capacitors would only explode under such load that would take a direct lightening strike to generate. So the decision was made to replace them during normal service routine.
We all went about our business.