When we perform a root cause analysis, we occasionally find that something as seemingly minor as a typo has had a huge impact on an organization’s bottom line, their reputation, or even public safety. The following is a collection of some of the worst typos ever made, with respect to impacts to the organization’s goals.
8. Misspelling your own name
The Oops: In 2008, a New Hampshire newspaper misspelled its own name, in the front page title, specifically by adding an extra “s”. Missouri State University misspelled its own name on bags provided to students (Univeristy [sic]). The error was pointed out by a student. However, the most well-known of this kind of error probably occurred when “Chile” was misspelled on their 50-peso coin. The misprinting occurred in 2008, but was not noticed until late 2009. (Rather than CHILE, the coin said “CHIIE” [sic]. The coins are now collectors’ items.)
The Impact: The general manager of the Chilean mint was fired for the coin error. In the newspaper and university cases, actual cost was minimal and the main impact was abject embarrassment. However, typos can frequently result in loss of opportunities. Some recruiters have said that when they get multiple submissions for a single job, resumes with errors go straight to the shredder.
7. Counting on a computer to do your job for you
The Oops: On January 7, 2009, the US Army admitted that 7,000 letters addressed “Dear John Doe” were sent out to family members of soldiers killed in Iraq.
The Impact: The Army immediately issued a formal apology and sent a personal note to the families. The letters were sent to the correct families, but there must have been a devastating moment for the families when they thought they may have received someone else’s letter . . . and then realized they hadn’t.
6. Entering the wrong number
The Oops: On February 5, 2011, an employee at a company in Japan listed 610,000 shares of a job recruiting company at 1 yen apiece. What it really meant to do was list 1 share at 610,000 yen (~$5,000). A surprising number of similar stories abound, including a listing on April 5, 2006 for flights from Canada to Cyprus for $39 CAD, instead of $3,900.
The Impact: Although the company in Japan tried to cancel the order, it was processed by the Tokyo Stock Exchange, resulting in a loss of $225 million. In the case of the surprisingly cheap airline tickets, they were honored by the airline (after initially trying to cancel the tickets) to 500-2000 people, resulting in a very expensive typo indeed.
5. Incorrect punctuation
The Oops: A communications company in Canada thought it had a five-year deal beginning in spring 2002 with a utility company to add cable lines to thousands of utility poles. Then the utility company cancelled in early 2006. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission determined that, because of an extra comma, the contract said that the contract could be cancelled with one-year’s notice, even during the first five years. (The area in question said the contract: “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”) A missing hyphen in the coded computer instructions was partially responsible for the loss of steering on Mariner 1, which was launched on July 22, 1962.
The Impact: After the cancellation, the utility upped its rates for the use of the poles, which will result in the communications company paying about $2.13 million more than it thought. But if you think that’s expensive, even worse was the loss of Mariner 1, which had to be blown up when it could no longer be steered. The value of the Mariner 1 in 1962 was $18.5 million.
4. Using the wrong units
The Oops: The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost on September 23, 1998 while trying to establish orbit around Mars. Turns out the trajectory was lower than expected (allowing the orbiter to be subjected to the extreme heat of the Martian atmosphere) because incorrect velocity changes were used in calculations. Specifically, results from a software program were provided in pound force (English System of Units) and the program predicting the velocity assumed the results were in Newtons (International System of Units, or SI), a factor of difference of 4.45. (Read more about the Mars Climate Orbiter.)
The Impact: The Mars Climate Orbiter was destroyed with a complete loss of mission. The orbiter cost $125 million in 1998.
3. Leaving out a (very important) word
The Oops: The interesting thing about some small words (like “not” or “out”) is that they change the meaning of the entire sentence. A man named Bruce Wayne Morris (who does not become Batman) was sentenced to death in 1987 after the jury was given the choice of death or prison for life with the possibility of parole. The choice was in fact between execution or a life sentence without parole.
The Impact: Morris’ death sentence was reversed by a federal appeals court in 2001 – that’s right, 11 years later. (The cost of 11 years worth of deliberation and appeals is not known.) It is thought that the jury originally opted for the death sentence rather than worrying about him being released on parole at some point in the future.
2. Checking the wrong box
The Oops: On January 28, 2013, Evan Spencer Ebel was released from jail, the result of a clerical error. In 2008, while serving eight years, Ebel pleaded guilty to assaulting a prison guard. The additional sentence was to be served after the original eight-year sentence. Instead, the record indicated that the second sentence was to be served concurrent with the original sentence.
The Impact: Ebel is believed to have murdered a pizza delivery man on March 17 and the executive director of the state Department of Corrections on March 19 before he was killed by deputies in Texas on March 21. A similar situation also ended in tragedy when Charles Anthony Edwards III was mistakenly discharged in January 2012 from a high-security mental hospital in California, where he is suspected of fatally stabbing a shop owner.
1. Writing illegibly
The Oops: While bad penmanship may not necessarily be considered a typo, it can result in the same kinds of problems. Bad penmanship means that the person who has to read it is much more likely to read it incorrectly. In one such case, the registration for a ship’s Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) was written sloppily, and a “C” become a “0”. This didn’t much matter until more than two years later, on March 24, 2009, when the ship (Lady Mary) began to sink and set off its EPIRB. Because the code was entered incorrectly, it took more than an hour and a half to locate the ship.
The Impact: By the time the Lady Mary was reached (the delay was due to other compounding errors as well), only one crew member was able to be saved. The other six men were lost at sea.
What to do so this doesn’t happen to you
When something is important, give it an extra edit. Specifically, find someone who is not a coworker (a coworker will likely gloss over the same things you did, like the name of your organization). Motivated teenagers make great editors. Offer them a dollar for every error they find. (It’s well worth it.)
Note that legal documents, given the importance of their exact wording and difficulty changing any whoopsies, should be extra, extra carefully edited.
If you really don’t have time to get an independent edit, try reading it out loud.
When your computer is doing some of the work for you, it’s probably a good idea to actually look at a few of the results.
When you’re working with numbers, which are much more difficult to check for errors than words (“univeristy” [sic] is not a word, but 39 is still a number), perform a related math calculation. One that in particular could have come in handy here is the percentage reduction in the cost of the item. (Plane tickets at 99% off? Maybe you want to look at that one again.)
Also, your math teachers weren’t kidding about always using units with your numbers. Or else you might as well answer the question “How far is it?” with “10”. If at any point in your analysis a different unit of measurement comes up, go ahead and write both, the way many cookbooks and measuring cups now contain both ounces (English System of Units) and milliliters (Metric System of Units).
All the editing tips above may help, but maybe more important is an understanding of the possible impact of a seemingly innocuous typo. Yes, they happen to everyone. But before you let them out of your office, take another look. If someone thinks you’re wasting your time, show them the two million-dollar examples above.
I’ve made a handy sheet to remind you why you care about editing. To take a look and print it out for your wall, please click “Download PDF” above.