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By SafetyCulture Team   |  
September 10th, 2014

Ignorance vs. Ineptitude: What it means, and how we can change it

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When it comes to making mistakes in the workplace there are two different kinds; ignorance and ineptitude.  This post includes the difference between both, a real life story of how ineptitude can be a potential killer, and a simple solution as to how it can be avoided.

The first type of failure is ignorance. Ignorance is a failure that occurs from things beyond our control or capacity. As much as technology and knowledge has advanced in recent years, there are still many unknowns in this world. We do not know everything and we are still learning as a human race. While this is still happening, there will be errors. Things aren’t always in our control which is why in these instances, ignorant mistakes can generally be forgivable, as long as you gave it your best.

There are many, many instances however, where we do have control. We have the knowledge and have simply forgotten or overlooked something, leading to a mistake. The application of the knowledge results in the error. This is ineptitude. Mistakes can be fatal, ineptitude is avoidable.

[Tweet “Forgetting something we already know can lead to a fatal mistake. This is ineptitude.”]

The term “20/20 hindsight” applies when something has happened and we can immediately see how it could have been avoided, or how it could have been improved. It is all too little, too late. A lesson to learn, so we can improve and hopefully not make the same mistake again.

In The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (a very thought-provoking read, I thoroughly recommend it), the novel focuses primarily on medical practices. The author tells of a time he was chatting with John, his surgeon friend and he told him a story.

John was working in the ER one night when a man came in with a stab wound. He had been in an altercation while drunk and copped one to the stomach. He was in a stable condition, seemingly fine and not in pain as he drunkenly rambled to the nurses.

As the trauma team cut his clothes off and gave him a check over from head to toe, they found the stab wound in the form of a neat, two inch slit in his rather rotund belly. They would need to take him to the operating room to make sure it hadn’t punctured any major organs, and sew up the wound.

No big deal, John thought, they had plenty of time, this wasn’t a bad injury. But then a nurse noticed he had stopped his drunken ramblings. His heart rate had gone through the roof and his eyes were rolling in the back of his head. He was non-responsive, and his blood pressure was barely detectable.

“There are a thousand ways things can go wrong with a stab wound. Everyone involved got almost every step right, they just forgot to ask what the weapon was, which is standard procedure.

The trauma team flew to work. They stuck a tube down his lungs and filled them with air, poured fluid and emergency-release blood into him. But still they couldn’t raise his blood pressure.

Everything was crazy now, John started slicing the man open to perform a cautery. As he pierced the abdominal cavity, an ocean of blood burst out of the patient. It is now that John realises the assailant’s knife had pierced more than a foot of the man’s skin, muscle, intestine, spinal column, and into the aorta, the main artery from the heart.

Another surgeon joined to help and clamped the aorta, which helped stem the blood loss. They eventually gained control and the patient was stabilised.

Someone noted they hadn’t seen an injury like that since Vietnam. Which turned out to be pretty close. The assailant had stabbed the man with a bayonet.

There are a thousand ways things can go wrong with a stab wound. Everyone involved got almost every step right, they just forgot to ask what the weapon was, which is standard procedure.

“Your mind just doesn’t think of a bayonet in San Francisco,” John said.

This was an unfortunate example of ineptitude that almost cost a man his life. The procedure was almost followed to a tee bar one small step that was overlooked.

There should be a way to avoid ineptitude completely. To keep track of items, questions, and things that need to be signed off on every time a certain task is performed. And there is. And it is almost ridiculous in its simplicity. It is the basis of the book and the philosophy of our iAuditor team here at SafetyCulture. It is a checklist.

Inept failures are avoidable with a checklist.

Author: Jarrod Boyd

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