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What is a Glitch?

By Randall Rice

I try to keep my rants to a minimum, but I reserve the right to rant at least once every six months. I claim my right to rant this month.

I read an article a couple of weeks ago that the Social Security Administration fell victim to a “glitch” that resulted in about 230,000 Medicare recipients getting checks that erroneously reimbursed them for monthly premiums they have paid for prescription drug coverage this year. The amount of the error was estimated to be about $50 million.

To me, a $50 million dollar mistake is not a minor one. Sure, in the grand scheme of government spending this is just a drop in the bucket. However, if I owed $50 million dollars to the government I’m sure it would be a big deal. Just ask Willie Nelson.

The article went on to explain that the money would be recovered, but I’m skeptical. The postage alone will be substantial, not to mention the human effort needed to follow-up with people. Once the money is spent, then it’s going to be very difficult to get it back from people living just off of Social Security payment. Then, there will be some people who die and the money will be in estates. These things make me think that some money may be recouped, but probably not all of it.

I'm not picking on the Social Security Administration. Let me cite another example. On Dec 25, 2004, Comair’s flight crews could not find the right planes because of a major system failure. In the news media, this was described as a “glitch”. We’re talking 1,100 flights and 30,000 passengers in 118 cities affected. That sounds like catastrophic system failure to me. That’s a 10 on a “0 to 10” risk scale. When I heard the story broadcast on the national news that evening, I nearly dropped my warmed-up turkey leg in shock at the casual term (“glitch”) they used. That’s what being a trainer does to you.

My point in all this is that the words we use really do have meaning. A glitch or bug seems to convey a minor thing that can be easily fixed. A defect or problem is more serious.

Some organizations go to great lengths to avoid using the word “defect.” I suppose to them “defects” seem too negative and serious. People could get in trouble for them. That’s why I wrote an article called “Defects are Good” to show that you can learn to view defects in a positive way and profit from them. However, you must first face the reality that everyone (including you and me) makes mistakes from time to time.

In the two examples mentioned above, it is the news media that has used the term "glitch." If you do a Google search on the cited examples, you will see a remarkable parroting of how the problems were positioned. 

It is my observation that when people want to minimize the perceived impact and the resulting scrutiny and blame, they call a problem something less, like a glitch, snafu or bug. So what’s the big deal?

I’m glad you asked. When people fail to appreciate the seriousness of software quality, they minimize the work it takes to achieve it. Instead of working on better processes and ways to find problems early, people find it easier to explain them away. You will hear things like, “Yes, we had a little glitch in things and we’ll be a few days late delivering the software changes you requested. But don’t worry, it’s all under control.” What is lost in this statement is why the problem happened and how it can be prevented next time. In a healthy culture of improvement, these things are openly discussed and people value the truth because they know the result is the prevention of similar problems in the future.

Here’s my challenge to you. In your organization this week, listen to see how many times people use the words glitch, bug, snafu, etc. to describe a situation. Then ask yourself “Is this term is really accurate?”. If not, then you may have an opportunity to work on changing your culture to understand the difference between a glitch and a defect and to move toward a culture of improvement instead of blame.

Now, I’m going to proofread this article to make sure there are no typos...I mean, defects!

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Rice Consulting Services, Inc.
P.O. Box 892003
Oklahoma City, OK  73189

"Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile." -- Vince Lombardi

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