Posted by: silverback | 2010/03/09


my coworker is mad at me this morning, because yesterday afternoon, i told him he exhibited a stunning lack of attention to detail. i was not trying to hurt his feelings. it is a true statement, as far as he has demonstrated in his work over the past year or so. this latest mistake is going to cost our company no small amount of money. i’m going to skip the opportunity to further publicly slay my coworker’s character, but it was the nicest way i could think of to say, “dude, you’re kind of an idiot.”

"i don't know why..."

in summary: recently, he received a CAD file via email with a common extension, but he was “unable to open it.” attached to the same email was an Adobe .pdf file, which he “did not see,” containing all the relevant data we needed to make a go/no-go decision on a client’s part. furthermore, he did not reply to the client in any way to convey the problem he was having opening the file. the client took our radio silence for consent to go ahead. now we have a box of 500 or so essentially unusable injection molded parts which the client has paid for, and is very concerned about whose error caused the snafu.

our boss – the owner of the company – is understandably very perplexed. he wants to know how this could have happened, and it falls on me to take responsibility for the error. because so far, my coworker has been unwilling to admit his oversight. as his immediate senior, i was ultimately responsible for following up and making sure this got done, and done correctly. i assumed our boy was competent to complete the task. after all, he is a grown fucking man, supposedly with a resume including CAD expertise.

my mistake. it will not be repeated.

one of the mantras of the Naval Nuclear Power Program, and the chain-of-command hierarchy in general, is that a leader can delegate authority, but he can never delegate responsibility. this is a core value of mine. if i am given responsibility to accomplish a task, then delegate the doing of the task to a junior or to a peer, who then fails to complete the task, i feel it is my problem. i didn’t follow up to make sure the person had what he/she needed, or made assumptions about the person’s ability to do so. even if they didn’t ask for help when they needed it.

my pivotal experience with accepting responsibility for my mistakes in delegation came while on duty in the Naval Submarine Support Facility (or NAVSUBSUPPFAC) Outside Machine Shop in Groton, CT, in the winter of 1993. we had a submarine getting an emergency underway-critical repair of an Auxiliary Seawater Pump. to clarify, the pump had to be fixed before the boat could go to sea, and it was scheduled to be at sea already. since part of the pump’s purpose was to keep the ocean out of the boat, it was a fairly important job to accomplish correctly. i had been on the boat overseeing the repairs for probably 16 hours, and had gotten the difficult technical work to the pump finished. all that remained was to rig the pump motor into place (not my shop) and bolt it down. i left that jobsite & went to take care of the administrative portion of closing out the job.

something happened at some point, and the mechanical seal got damaged during the rigging process, so the pump leaked when it was tested. it is a big deal if a Naval submarine can’t go to sea when it is supposed to, so there was a huge command-level investigation of the incident, and considerable heat was directed at my shop, specifically the two of my people who were present during the final stages of the rigging & assembly. i was called to the carpet before the Commander of the Naval Submarine Atlantic Fleet (COMSUBLANT), who proceeded to ask me leading questions about the two petty officers in question, inquiring as to their competence and character. i saw what was happening, and felt it disingenuous that those two should suffer a black mark on their records for something they really had no control over – a simple, if unfortunate, mistake. i stood before all that brass and told them in no uncertain terms that the two petty officers could in no way be held responsible for the error – i had been the duty chief on the night in question, and i had made the mistake of leaving before all the work was done satisfactorily, and i reminded this very senior officer that responsibility could not be designated. if any enlisted person was to be blamed, it was to be me.

it was possibly the most liberating moment of my entire life. i let go of all my fear of reprimand, of the outcome, and told the TRUTH, as near as i could reckon.

these three or four officers were rendered speechless – they were reduced to looking questionably at each other, then asking a couple more questions about the timeline of the night in question, then dismissing me. my immediate supervisor was directed to verbally reprimand the three of us for lack of attention to detail, but nobody’s career was wrecked on that occasion. it pissed me off at the time that they were willing to assign the blame down the chain so readily – just like the enlisted grunts that got thrown under the bus for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal more recently. having been in the military for eight years, you cannot tell me that the officers in charge (OIC) of these privates & sergeants – essentially minions in the grand scheme – were not aware of the abuses and human-rights violations happening en masse in that facility.  to me, it is a travesty of justice that the Lieutenants, Captains, even Majors in charge of these kids were either transferred out or promoted out, when they should have been the ones under severest scrutiny.

i have a five-year-old son. Lucas is a ball of energy, with an attention span measured in seconds. if i tell him to get dressed, then leave him alone with the assumption that he’ll follow up on that, i am bound to be disappointed every time. he needs help staying focused, he needs incentive. he needs somebody to get his pants down off the hangers in the closet. as he has grown and begun to understand what’s expected of him (through patient walk-throughs of getting dressed, daily), he has gotten better. i usually only have to remind him to stay focused from the next room, to realign his attention.

i suppose my coworker is going to experience a little of the unpleasant attention i currently use on my five-year-old. if he thinks i was mean in saying his lack of attention to detail was a problem, he’s going to hate having me riding his ass eight hours a day for the foreseeable future.

what bothers me most of all at this point is that the guy has continued to attempt to cover his ass with remarks like, “i don’t know why i didn’t realize that was a STEP file; the extension is .stp, not .step, ” and “i don’t know why i didn’t see the .pdf attached…” as if it had magically appeared at some later date. and he has assumed the aforementioned stance that somehow he is affronted at my criticism of his inattention. he has not once said, “oh damn – it would appear this mistake is mine. i am sorry about this.”

be a man, is all.


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