Become Redundant

Today, I had to go to the post office. I initially planned to walk (the nearest post office is a half mile from my house) but as the afternoon approached 5 pm, I made a last minute change of plans.

Before reading this post, you have to promise not to call CPS.

Today, I had to go to the post office. I initially planned to walk (the nearest post office is a half mile from my house) but as the afternoon approached 5 pm, I made a last minute change of plans. I grabbed my three-month-old son’s carseat (with my son inside) and made my way to the car–diaper bag, package, keys, phone, to-do list, and all in tow.

I sped off to make it by closing time, parked right in front, scooped up the infant-ladden carseat et. al, ran up the stairs and ducked inside before they locked the doors. After dropping off my package and breathing a sigh of relief, I strolled back to my car. As I reattached the carseat to the base, my son started to cry. I paused in the get-in-the-car routine and when I reached to comfort him, I gasped!

I had driven to the post office without strapping my son into his carseat! Yikes! Not only that, but I was just about to do it again. If I hadn’t been interrupted in my open-door-with-one-hand-swing-kid-in-with-the-other-til-you-hear-the-click, I would have exposed my child to yet another near-death experience.

This mom-fail really got me thinking. People make mistakes. Lots of them. Even when we intend to do things a particular way, we screw up. We may strive to build a reputation for consistent customer service. We may value sending out our rentals in tip-top shape. We may really want customers to walk away with the same positive experience they had the last time. But sometimes that just doesn’t happen.

I have recently been listening to Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard Thaler. As they talk about designing systems for business, government, and life, they mention: “Humans make mistakes. A well-designed system expects its user to err and is as forgiving as possible.” This really hit home for me today. Even with good intentions, people don’t always “get it right” or do what they set out to do.

We should keep this in mind as we develop systems in our own businesses. Make check-lists. Document your procedure. Write a manual (even if you’re only a one-man shop… it will ultimately help you grow) so you can repeat the same experience from one customer to the next. Put these systems in place, And then, use them. Reproducible systems prevent mistakes Doing things the same way every time will make your customers happy.

As I looked at my flailing child today, I remembered a routine that my family had when I was a kid. Whenever we got in the car, my mom would ask, “Seatbelt?” and we would say, “Check!” as we made sure we were clicked in. The system evolved into a game of sorts. Sometimes my mom would say “Marco?” and then we’d yell “Polo!” or we’d shout “Cookie!” to her “Oreo?”

If you only rely on your memory or your good intentions, chances are you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Having a system in place can help you catch them before they do harm. Sunstein and Thaler later go on to say, “The best way to help humans improve their performance is to provide feedback. Well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they are making mistakes.” Perhaps our procedures should include “check that you’ve done all the steps” as the last step on the list.

When I relayed my child-endangering blunder to my husband this evening, he graciously reminded me of the same truth Nudge points to. We’re not perfect. We’re going to make mistakes as we go along. I suppose Elliot won’t be able to play the fill-in-the-blank-as-he-buckles-himself-in game for a while but in the meantime, I’ll be thinking about a system that doesn’t rely on me remembering everything on my own.

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