Wrestling with Difficult Problems Helps You Grow
It’s the process of putting your mistakes right that turns a failure into a learning experience
When you discover an error in your design, what do you do? The reasonable response is to first inform your boss. However, while it would be nice if apologizing for the mistake was all you needed to do in these situations to make things right again, in reality, the job doesn’t end there─you will always be required to implement some kind of solution, or otherwise deal with the aftermath of your mistake. If you are able to debate the issue with your superiors or the more experienced engineers on your team, they should come up with the best way to solve the problem, or at least the solution most acceptable to those concerned. (In reality, this is not always the case.)
If no one else is available to turn to, however, what do you do? With problems that are simply too difficult to solve on your own, it may be best to give up and wait until your boss is able to advise you. But if you have the time and energy, there is no harm in “wrestling” with the problem yourself to see what you can achieve. I am not talking about covering up your mistakes or running away from them. Rather, I’m talking about acknowledging what you got wrong, then working out on your own how you can put things right.
Every Last Drop of Wisdom
They say you should learn from your mistakes─to work out what went wrong and take care not to make the same mistake again. This is all well and good, but I believe by going through the effort of putting things right again, it is possible to extract the very last drop of wisdom from your mistakes. When you have to call a meeting to inform your team that you made a mistake, it can make you feel like a criminal awaiting sentencing─disheartened throughout. Instead of simply apologizing for your error, however, I think it’s good to be able to propose solutions as well. Engineers need to get to a point where they’re tough enough to come up with their own ideas for putting things right, rather than just treating failure as a nasty experience. Also, the more mistakes you make, the more opportunities you have to learn from your superiors or the more experienced engineers in your team how to put them right. However, knowledge alone will not enable you able to come up with clever solutions independently.
This story involves something that happened to me a couple of years after I started working for Kikusui. I should state at the outset that this incident is not something to be proud of. While everything worked out in the end, you might say that this anecdote is old-fashioned, and idealizes the idea that you can erase your mistakes through sheer toil, by pulling an “all-nighter”. Indeed, I was lucky that everything turned out alright in the end, as my approach to the problem was somewhat haphazard. However, I believe that my efforts at the time to do everything that I could to find a solution based on my limited knowledge were made in good faith, and even if my frantic “wrestling” with the problem had come to nothing, the thought process I went through and the lessons I learned would still have come in handy at some point.
Today’s story takes us 30 years back in time and begins two days before I was due to deliver a switching power supply to a client. The time was just after 7 in the evening.
A Moment of Panic
I was preparing a report of test results and other documentation. As the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), when delivering the power supplies, we needed to include circuit diagrams and component tables. By the time everything was ready, it was 8 pm. I sat there looking at the pile of photocopies and the blueprints. (Younger readers might not know what blueprints are!) It was when I happened to flip through a set of component tables that I realized something was wrong.
My eyes landed on the specification for one of the transistors:
I could feel my pulse quickening. The rating seemed too low. I double checked.
The transistor in question was used in a power outage (instantaneous power loss) sensing circuit that was only triggered when the AC input was interrupted. Upon power interruption, 141 V (155 V max) would be induced across the transistor for around three seconds. However, the transistor I had selected was only rated to withstand 120v on its collector relative to its emitter, making it definitely below spec. My boss and the more senior members of my team had all gone home, leaving my me alone on the design floor. There was no one I could ask for help. What to do?
A Lucky Gamble
I went to the production floor and looked at the 25 power supplies that comprised the initial shipment lot, already in their boxes. I considered whether I would be able to replace all the components in one day, whether the proper components could even be delivered by tomorrow, and whether there was a way to deliver the shipment as it was. Then it struck me: I could try measuring the actual electrical performance of the transistors─as the readers of this will know, an additional safety margin is added to every component’s rated specification. While I wasn’t optimistic, I decided to take a gamble and trust my instincts. At about 9:30 p.m., I ran around the lab, picking the transistors out of power supplies from other lots. I managed to collect a total of ten transistors from a total of three lots. I then used a curve tracer to determine the electrical properties of the transistors, before subjecting them to destructive testing with a voltage withstand tester. I collated my findings in a report.
The next thing I knew it was getting light outside. Presently, my boss arrived. I told him I had bad news, and apologized. I then told him the options I had come up with:
Replace the existing transistors with transistors that had the proper rating. (If they took too long to arrive, I would have to tell the client that their order would be delayed.)
Ask the client if they were happy to use the power supplies as they were, on the basis of the tests I had performed. (We would have the client review my report to ascertain the transistors’ performance before deciding whether or not to use the power supplies.)
“Let’s go with option two,” said my boss.
I had our sales representative contact the client to let them know about the error. It was agreed that the rep would visit the client’s offices at 1 pm.
One Remark Changed Everything
This would be unthinkable now, but our boss did not come with us. It was just me and the sales rep. Arriving at the client’s offices 10 minutes early, we were shown to a meeting room. The head of the division that developed devices manufactured by third-party manufacturers, as well as the heads of the development team, quality control division, and purchasing team were all there. The mood in the room was serious. I began by apologizing for the error, and going over the steps I had taken between discovering the error and submitting my report.
I was lucky for two reasons. Not only had I discovered the flaw before the power supplies were delivered, but the transistors in question were manufactured by the client. Looking over the test results, the head of quality control said, “I think this transistor is overly derated anyway.”
His remark seemed to ease the tension in the room. It was agreed that the transistor could be used in the circuit in question, and that the first lot of power supplies would be delivered the following day, as planned. However, the second lot of power supplies, which was scheduled to be delivered in two months’ time, would use the proper transistors. I compiled minutes of the meeting, and had them signed by the attendees before going back to my office.
I still remember what the client said to me as I walked out of the meeting room.
“Did you stay up all night writing that report? Good job!”
It made me pleased to have put in the extra effort. Sadly, none of my own colleagues were as kind…
Looking back on the incident now, I realize I was probably lucky that my solution worked. However, the value of the process of struggling with a difficult problem should not be determined solely on the basis of the outcome. “Wrestling” with problems is good practice and creates new synapses in the brain. I think all the managers and senior engineers out there have had their fair share of struggles in the past. However, it is a waste to treat a mistake as something you should be ashamed of and shut it away inside yourself. When a junior member of your team makes a mistake, rather than simply talking about a solution that worked in the past, I advocate talking about the problems you struggled with yourself.
Solutions Development Section, Solutions Development Department (Supervisor)
[Major achievements in product development]
PAK-T, PAK-A, PAD-LET series regulated DC power supplies
PAX and PBX series high-speed programmable power supplies
PFX40W-08 battery charging and discharging tester