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Assumption is the mother of all f*ckups

On my first day at work in the fencing industry, my boss said to me: “Here’s a RAL colour fan. Look after it, because you won't get just another one at the powder coating workshop. Check the numbers and the names carefully, and every time you have to write down a colour somewhere, write down both the number and the name.”

I got used to doing it back then and since that time I've always done it. Does something need to be in RAL 8017? Oh, then that's Chocolate Brown. People who saw me do it didn’t understand why. Surely that’s twice as much work? Have you got too much time on your hands?”

But it's really not that much work. It’s usually just one or two words, and it achieves two important things. Number 1, other people’s mistakes come to light earlier. How many times have you had a customer unable to choose between RAL 5010 Gentian Blue and RAL 5011 Steel Blue? He’s not sure, he rings another three times to discuss it and eventually orders 5011, but he actually wanted Gentian Blue. With all his wavering back and forth he’s got the numbers confused.

If you place his order in RAL 5011, he’ll get a colour he doesn’t want. And he certainly couldn’t blame you for that; you supplied exactly what he ordered. But your customer wouldn’t be happy with his fence. And if he somehow managed to order his window frames in Gentian Blue, then he’d end up with two different colours on and around his house. And what would you do then? Uninstall everything, have it recoated and reinstalled and then charge full price for it?

Number 2: you give others the chance to catch your own mistakes for you. If you yourself get confused – because you heard a whole long list of colour numbers during a discussion with a customer – and write RAL 5010 (Steel Blue) on the order at a powder coating workshop, the coater will be on the phone immediately to ask which of the two you mean. If you’d only written 5010, you would have got Gentian Blue.

And then you have to ask yourself: how often does that happen? Nine times out of ten everything will be fine if you write down only the colour number or only the colour name. Maybe even 99 percent of the time. But then that hundredth time you’re very happy that you didn’t have 400 metres coated in Gentian Blue when it should have been Steel Blue. And you don't even need a RAL colour fan for that these days; at and you’ll find a comprehensive overview of all the colours, in six languages.

Besides catching any colour errors in your orders, always writing down both the colour number and the colour name has an underlying advantage that’s actually much more important. Every time you write down a colour twice you’re momentarily reminded that things can go wrong if you don't double-check them, or if you don't build in safeguards that ensure that someone else can do their job and be certain that they’re doing the right thing without needing to make any assumptions.

Because Murphy's Law (what can go wrong, will go wrong) doesn’t just apply to colour numbers. It applies to everything. And nine times out of ten something goes wrong because there are several people involved in something, all of whom assume that the others have done or will do their job properly, without being 100 percent sure of it.

This is true of all sorts of things. When you send a colleague on an errand, when you send an order to a supplier, when you give a work order to an installer, when you ask someone to check that an invoice is correct – if you’re not extremely clear and specific about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, then things are guaranteed to go wrong at some point. “Assumption is the mother of all f*ckups,” as Steven Seagal put it in the film Under Siege 2. Because everyone does what’s logical to them, not what’s logical to you. And the two are not always the same.

If a coater receives an order with the number RAL 5011, he’ll coat all the materials in that order in Steel Blue. He’s not going to call you asking why you’re ordering Steel Blue all of a sudden, when you normally always order Gentian Blue if something needs to be blue. There are so many customers who order one particular colour regularly, but now and then order another. And anyway, why would he care? He’s covered, because he has an order that says 5011. If it later turns out that it should have been 5010 then he'll just coat the stuff again, right? Then he can send you another invoice.

In that same fencing company where I started out, there was an installer called Johnny. I’ve written about him before. Johnny was a very reliable and loyal installer, who always did his best and never made mistakes. He did everything you told him to. So if you said to Johnny, “Chuck that ladder on the Iveco for me,” then that would be done, no problem. But then later on you’d also have to say, “Secure the ladder to the Iveco,” because otherwise when you were on your way back to the business you’d look in the rearview mirror and see that ladder bouncing across the motorway.

There are plenty of Johnnys in the world, and not just in installation either. They’re in the office, and on the management team too. In Johnny’s case he was simply incapable. He was unable to remember more than one task at a time. For some other people it’s just that they don’t want to. They’re too lazy or too idle to think proactively. But the vast majority of people, whether you work with them or give them directions or ask favours of them, would have wanted to be proactive but it simply never occurred to them that you might have meant something else.

They really don't do it to annoy you. They’re simply doing their jobs, and doing what’s logical to them. Or familiar. Or what they always do. And in the meantime they’re concerned with their own problems, not yours.

So it means you can avoid a lot of f*ckups if you think ahead about how another person might interpret an instruction, an order, a message or a task. And every time you write down a colour number twice, you’ll be reminded of it. It helps you to internalise discipline, to think ahead in everything you do. <

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