Pay attention to details

The o-rings that caused the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
The o-rings that caused the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from small things, I am tempted to think…there are no small things. — Barton

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred when it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of seven crew members. Disintegration began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff. The O-ring failure caused a breach in the SRB joint it sealed, allowing pressurized burning gas from within the solid rocket motor to reach the outside and impinge upon the adjacent SRB aft field joint attachment hardware and external fuel tank.

Details are important.

  • Disastrous things can happen when we neglect details — Challenger disaster.
  • Great artists are obsessed with details — Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 endings to A Farewell to Arms.
  • The health of personal relationships often hinges on small courtesies — a friend called me last week to ask about a project I’m working on; I was so pleased that he remembered.
  • When writing, details are essential. There’s a difference between “I’m going to eat, Mom” and “I’m going to eat Mom.”

Charles Eames, the famous American architect and furniture designer, once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Everything is composed of details so every detail is important.

I used to pride myself on my disregard for details, thinking that I was a “big picture” guy who was too concerned with macro issues to worry about micro ones. I was wrong. Being detail-oriented and maintaining a broad view are not mutually exclusive. We can and should do both.

A friend of mine, who was the personal assistant to Mr. Carl Sewell, a successful luxury car dealer in Dallas, told me an interesting story. One day my friend heard Mr. Sewell talking on the phone with the president of General Motors about global issues affecting the automobile industry: financial markets, the price of oil, the impact of China on American automakers, etc. When Mr. Sewell finished the call, he straightaway walked to the parts department and asked, “Have we received the bumper for Ms. Johnson’s Escalade?” Mr. Sewell constantly and successfully negotiated both minutia and massive issues.

Often, big doors swing on small hinges. The space vehicle Mariner 1, destined for Mars, suddenly veered off course and into oblivion. A single hyphen was inadvertently left out of the data fed into its guidance system and that was the cause of its regrettable fate.

[Since we’re talking about details, here’s a detailed description of the error: The error occurred when a symbol was being transcribed by hand in the specification for the guidance program. The writer missed the superscript bar which meant “the nth smoothed value of the time derivative of a radius R”. Since the smoothing function indicated by the bar was left out of the specification for the program, the implementation treated normal minor variations of velocity as if they were serious, causing spurious corrections that sent the rocket off course.]

Pay attention to details.

[reminder]What are you thoughts about this topic?[/reminder]

What? – Details are important.
So what? – Be detail-oriented. Sweat the small stuff.
Now what? – Analyze yourself. Do you pay attention to details? Become more adept at this. Remember that “close enough” rarely is.

Leaders – Organizational excellence depends on being obsessed with details. Is this part of your organization’s culture?

12 Replies to “Pay attention to details”

  1. High School and Middle School students are working on their etudes for all-region and all-state bands and orchestras. The character building of seeing a crescendo and doing it every time can make the difference in how well a musician auditions. So true about all details being important. Remember that the longer we live, the easier it is for God to count the number of hairs on our head.

    1. Ben, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Detail in music is incredibly important.
      Relative to hair, I heard a nice phrase that applies to me: my haircuts are more ceremonial than practical.

  2. In the “Now What” portion of this posting, the word should be “Become”, not “Became”. That is my attention to detail for today! Love the article, Don!

  3. Not to be hypercritical, but to let you know I was paying attention; did you mean, (“Became” or become more adept at this)? And it is true “close only counts in horseshoes & hand grenades”!

  4. Don,
    ” A little neglect may breed mischief,… for the want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for the want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.” … MAXIMS… preface to Poor Richard’s Almanac. (1758). Ben Franklin
    I, for a long time, have thought it described King Richard, when he exclaimed, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
    Love your communications. Keep ’em coming.


  5. Glad to see your comments re. leadership and the importance of paying attention to details. Far too many “leaders” believe only in the “Big Picture”, which often leads to disastrous results.

    1. Kendel, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’re right, leaders, in particular, need to be obsessed with details. Little things add up to big things.
      Take care, Don.

  6. I think this is one of the most promising articles and/or blogs written. For one, when I think of suicides happening now, they probably start with small thoughts, small evidences from a youth, or someone else. Then two, I think of movies like that of BP destroying the ocean. That problem came from a small leak that was not attended too. It was noticed but was not attended.
    This is a powerful piece because this happens in people and it is happening in industries, trickling down to customer service. Everything that happens in the end (bad/good) starts by something small.
    Powerful, powerful piece!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *