Yellow Lilly Flower Green Grass

Can You Find the Flaw In the Picture?*


89% perfect.

This little observation starts with WWII and bombs.

In the 40s, when we were in the thick of it, we were making all kinds of bombs, planes, tanks, torpedoes and munitions. If you recall your history, the bane of the soldier, sailor and pilot was a malfunctioning piece of equipment or “dud.”

As a result, much effort was made to inspect each part to avoid problems, some of which were life or death matters. But the problems did not go away. It turned out that inspectors would make mistakes and a few duds would sneak through.

It was a mathematician who suggested that inspecting only a few parts per hundred would be faster, almost as accurate and much, much cheaper. I know this story because my dad told it to me. He was a quality engineer, a job and career that sprang out of that war, a position where a person’s sole job was inspecting a small percentage of parts to make sure they were “up to spec.”

It was Dad who confronted me with my first taste of unavoidable error when he recited a mantra used almost daily by quality engineers: “100 percent inspection is not 100 percent accurate.”

Years later I ran into it again. I heard about a large insurance company which had developed a way to settle auto claims within hours of the accident. The adjuster would speed to the site, inspect the damage and cut the check on the spot.

There were a lot of reasons why that worked well, but one of the surprising details was that it cut down on errors. An agent explained to me, “Jeff, every time information is transferred from one person to another, there is an 11 percent error factor.”

I was astounded. “You mean people make that many mistakes?!” He nodded with confidence. “Believe me, if anyone could figure out what the error factor of people is, it would be an insurance company.”

This statistical truth runs smack into conventional wisdom when we hear coaches talk about giving “110 percent!” and common descriptions like “he is a perfectionist,” “she is a perfect parent” and more. This can set up dangerous expectations that sadly I see on a fairly common basis.

As a young dad, I set my baby (in a car seat) on the trunk of the car while I opened the door. What I didn’t realize was that this new car seat was different from the old one. It had no rubber feet and it slid off the trunk and fell face down on the concrete driveway. I can still hear that horrible sound. But Maggie was okay, everything was fine and I can accept that I made a mistake.

It’s not so easy for some. A rancher with four sons and a cute little girl, the apple of his eye, was out checking fields when he had the little girl open a gate. She didn’t listen, or he didn’t explain, or she was too small to see, or it was too muddy…it could have been all or none of those things. What happened for sure is that the older boys were called home from school, and with no advanced warning saw their father dump the lifeless body of their little sister on the kitchen table and shout, “This is what happens when you’re stupid!”

He never could accept that day. He dove into a bottle and stayed there. The brothers fell into a hole of remorse, sorrow and anger and a dark shadow was cast over that family where it remains to this very day.

“Nobody’s perfect” is not a copout or an excuse, or a descent into shoddy workmanship. It is reality. Your spouse will make mistakes. Understand that.

Your co-workers with fail. Prepare for it and accept it with good grace.

Your kids will disappoint you, just like you disappointed your folks when you were a kid.

And you, above all, you, will continue to make errors. It is who you are (as Paul reminds us: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”)

If you don’t make mistakes, you are guilty of false pride—a vision of yourself that is wrong. And if you do not accept that even the best vigilance and intentions cannot protect everyone all the time, you run the very real risk of hurting not just one person, but everyone you love, like a broken-down rancher, who could not accept that he was 89 percent perfect.

The hardest person to forgive is yourself.

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