Reducing my margin of error
October 9, 2012 6:28 AM   Subscribe

How can I reduce my margin of error on the job?

As you can see from my previous questions, employment has been a turbulent issue for me. I'm on yet another contract job that holds out the opportunity for full-time employment, but so far my track record has some glaring spots. It's been pointed out that I have a tendency to make the same mistakes and not understand things the first time directions are given.

I don't know if it's me or if it's my workplace. I have had co-workers gripe over lunch that they get contradictory directives from the higher ups, and have crossed swords with them in the past. At the same time, I have a lot of anxiety as bills are piling up and I'm in a toxic family living situation. In an ideal world I wouldn't be in the workforce at all, but I have no idea how to generate passive income streams.

I literally can't afford to lose this job and have a bad reputation in the small industry I'm in. How can I focus on getting things right the first time, or at least not going through so many rounds of drafts?

Keeping my line of work deliberately vague in case co-workers are reading, as I know some of them are on MeFi. If you'd like to learn more details, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by never nice to Work & Money (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Keep a pad of paper and pen with you at all times. When your boss tells you something, prioritize writing it down on the paper immediately.

This is one way to stay focused and on task.
posted by dfriedman at 6:34 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

When given directives at your job, ask a lot of questions, and rephrase what you think are the directions you're given back to the person who's giving the directions, to make sure that you've heard it right.

Schedule (if you can) frequent check-ins with your superiors in order to see if you're on the right track with your work. If you catch something going wrong early, you can course-correct along the way, instead of veering wildly off the path and winding up with something that isn't right when it's too late.

Also, take every opportunity to work with people who are demonstrably great at their jobs, even if that means staying off-the-clock or helping with things that "aren't your job." Taking on a little extra and helping when you aren't officially required to are things that are noticed quite favorably in any workplace.
posted by xingcat at 6:37 AM on October 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

One thing that has been proven to reduce errors is checklists. Pilots use them. Physicians are being encouraged to use them. I use them. I have to repeat some tasks that are repetitive and lengthy. Every time I have to do one of these, I copy from one of my checklist text documents to my main to-do text document and then make sure I go through each step in order.
posted by grouse at 6:38 AM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

One way I do it is to repeat back the instructions and reframe them to confirm that I'm understanding correctly:

"So you want a formula in the spreadsheet that calculates the percent difference between forecasted and sold?"

Also, before I get too involved in a project, I send a mock up of it to confirm that I'm on the right track, with a quick note, "Check this out, is this how you want it to look?"

Use checklists for all projects that you do on a regular basis. I have step-by-step instructions for everything. That way, even when I'm having a spacey day, I still get it right.

I use Excel a lot in my job, so I've built in conditional highlighting to show me if something doesn't match or if a cell is out of tolerance (plus or minus 5%) for what the expected result would be.

I'm a big picture person, not granular at all, but since I'm an analyst, I do what I have to so that everything is accurate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:40 AM on October 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

If these are oral instructions, the first thing you should do after you get back to your desk is e-mail the person giving the directions with your understanding of them.
posted by grouse at 6:44 AM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Really hard to say without knowing what sort of job we're talking about.

Maybe the problem isn't you and has more to do with the organization. (A "sick system".) If the problem is bad management, start documenting everything. Keep a file open where you write what you're working on, who told you to do it, when you started it and when you finished. Build a paper trail to protect yourself against accusations that you're not working. Be really direct about asking for clarification if you receive conflicting assignments ā€“ and make sure to communicate that you're doing so in the best interests of the project.

Also, are you asked to provide estimates of how long tasks will take you? If so, start doubling those estimates. Even if you know you can probably get something done in two days, promising that it will be done in two days is a mistake because you're not giving yourself time for little issues that come up. Make sure you set the expectation for management that when never nice says something will be done in X days, it will always be done in X days, even if X is bigger than we'd like. Consistency is the important part. Keep in mind that management is going to push to get smaller estimates and you will have to stand firm.

Basically, try to understand what the real problem is. Are there specific skills you don't have yet that you need to develop, or are you just feeling the pain from a disorganized management structure? Or does reality lie somewhere in the middle? Is there something management could provide you that would help you succeed?
posted by deathpanels at 6:50 AM on October 9, 2012

I work in an environment where making the same mistake repeatedly and not getting instructions the first time are kind of crucial. And I work in an office setting; that kind of gripe on a jobsite where tools or machinery are involved are even more worth paying attention to.

I found it wierd when I first started, but I'm coming around to realize why people gripe about this. If you're working to a crunch, and you can't afford to have something with errors going out the door (because someone will call the CEO after hours to point the error out, for example), then that kind of attention to detail is absolutely important.

Here's my two-pronged advice. I'm assuming you are in an office setting and you work primarily with paper, but the advice still applies otherwise:

1) Write down everything that is asked of you. If you're working on a document, keep all your drafts for each document you work on, in order, from oldest at the bottom to newest at the top of the stack. Keep each separate document and its drafts in a separate folder, so you can keep track of them. I prefer to scribble on the draft itself, you may prefer writing in a notebook or something. Either way, make sure you can immediately and clearly identify all the modifications and/or instructions given to you for each thing you're supposed to do.

I know a lady who went and got a little spiral-bound notebook, and wrote down detailed instructions on everything she was expected to do. Each separate instruction was tabbed with a coloured post-it note. Her book looked like a hedgehog when she was done, but it became her bible when it came to doing things right the first time.

2) When you get something completed, and you're ready to send to your boss for review, stop and take a psychological step back. Double check, even if you're certain you've caught everything. Make a habit of spell-checking your documents or of looking at your work from an angle you don't normally use to catch mistakes you'd otherwise skim over. Or if you're working with physical objects rather than documents, crouch down, or walk around the object, to see if you've "missed spots".

It's quite likely that your toxic living situation is not helping this situation any. Could you maybe have a quiet word with your boss that you're dealing with an unpleasant situation at home, and that while you're doing your best, there might be a few more mistakes than usual as a result of that?

Good luck!
posted by LN at 9:34 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are there specific skills you don't have yet that you need to develop, or are you just feeling the pain from a disorganized management structure? Or does reality lie somewhere in the middle?

It's a mix of both, actually. I'm still wet behind the ears in my field, but getting experience has been hard thanks to ye olde catch-22. And as LN noted, my toxic living situation means I don't have a sanctuary to go to when I'm off the clock. I'm always stressed out over one thing or another. I'm trying to keep it professional and keep work life separated from personal life as much as possible, but little things have been spilling over.
posted by never nice at 10:29 AM on October 9, 2012

I was thinking about your living situation.

Have you thought about renting a room with folks who are around your age? You can afford it, and it might be better than being around your family, who are causing you so much stress.

Renting a room, or becoming one of a few roommates can be a good thing, or it can be terrible, but you're in a decently stabile situation, so you can afford to be picky.

This might relieve you of the stress you're feeling over all, and make you a better employee.

Also, don't be afraid to ask for advice from other folks you work with regarding how they navigate the rough waters.

"Hey, Tim, I'm confused about what Boss is asking me for here, and she's not been able to clear it up for me. Have you ever done anything like this, or maybe you can tell me how to get what I need from her."

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:59 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

@Ruthless Bunny - I'm still living with toxic family only because I can't afford to pay rent or anything else on my own. Student loan and credit card payments take up at least half of my paycheck, and I have no reserves if my contract ends tomorrow or next week. Hence I've been seeking out full-time employment. I just can't "hustle" and drum up work like freelancers can.

If a situation came up where I could barter in exchange for room and board I could do that, but everyone wants money.
posted by never nice at 11:41 AM on October 9, 2012

You might be trying too hard and that is making you nervous. Also are you really listening to what the ask is? Always try to get the big picture, what exactly is this person trying to achieve so that you can make the desired changes if needed and keep your work on track.

Always keep some time at the end to go over your project.
posted by pakora1 at 12:39 PM on October 9, 2012

Does it seem to you that everybody else knows more, can listen to verbal instructions and really understand/remember, doesn't make mistakes, etc.? That's your error. Some people know more; they've been there longer. But I'm often amazed at how much people assume "everybody knows" that is just plain wrong. So don't be defensive, or feel as if you're a loser as you verify information.
You: J, you mentioned in last week's meeting that the Q site was launching today.
J: Oops, forgot to mention, it was re-scheduled for next Monday.

Email your supervisor. You: What's the link to the page where we check the Blah stats.
Supv.: It's on the Intranet, O, I forgot to get you full access. I'll get that rolling.
Do it in an "I'm checking the requirements" way.

Take notes. At one job where people were really nutty about not sharing info, I kept a private blog for my notes.
Use your calendar. If you can't remember to enter your time on Friday, make a reminder note.
Checklists, to do lists, whatever it takes to keep track - use it.

Toxic home life. This sucks. But if you can, try to view people with compassion. It makes me feel better to know that it's not me, it's that person's alcoholism, bipolar illness, crappy childhood, etc., making life miserable.
posted by theora55 at 6:05 PM on October 9, 2012

Okay, so if you simply lack the funds to get out of your living situation, then it seems that your priority should be procuring better employment. Is this current job a promising route toward that goal, or is it more of a stepping stone? How much income do you need to be bringing in per month to be able to afford to move out? Do some research and come up with some numbers. It'll help you align your priorities.

Now assuming you want to make your work life better, I think ever job boils down to expectations versus time. The way it typically works is:

1. Your employer has some expectation for your performance.
2. If, for whatever reason, you aren't meeting that expectation, your employer outlines specifically what you must do to improve within some reasonable time frame.
3. You come up with a plan for how you're going to improve and discuss it with your supervisor. (This might entail spending a few hours a week one-on-one with a more experienced coworker, taking a training course, or just spending some extra time outside of work doing catch-up.)
4. Go and enact your plan, and hopefully things work out.

Getting criticism at work isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just feels bad. And don't think that only crappy employees get negative feedback on their performance ā€“ it happens to everyone, from time to time. People get bored, lazy, or just have bad luck, and mistakes are made. Your attitude, however, when you get called out on it, should always be that you want critical feedback, because it will help you improve your skills and be a more effective employee. Of course, this is bullshit a lot of the time, but that's okay ā€“ it's all part of the delicate dance of workplace politics. Just make sure you always frame criticism in terms of how it's going to help you be a better employee in the near future. Remember, even if you get fired, you'll still have to spin it into a learning experience for your next job.

The other thing to remember, if you're new to a job (less than a year), is that asking questions incessantly is a good thing. Better to annoy people by asking too much than to fail and point fingers saying so-and-so didn't help me with this assignment.
posted by deathpanels at 9:12 PM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

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