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  • Writer's pictureGreg Fradd

Avoiding mistakes in data and written work

Greg Fradd, director at The Accuracy People, shares some of the ways we can avoid common mistakes in data and written work:


Customers expect accountants to be accurate; it is a crucial job skill. Whether you’re producing tax returns, running payroll services or providing bookkeeping, the ramifications from a mistake on your part can be wide-ranging: unhappy customer, time taken to rectify, potential financial cost, not to mention damage to your reputation.


The good news is that, based on our repeated and rigorous tests, most people have an accuracy rate of around 97% so most of the time everything works fine. But that 3% error rate is a killer in terms of wasted time and damaging repercussions. Making an error in someone’s name or transposing a couple of digits takes a matter of seconds. Finding it again, so you can put it right, can take hours, days or even weeks. Often, the mistake isn’t spotted until the repercussions start.



Causes of mistakes

None of us make mistakes deliberately, so telling ourselves not to make them doesn’t work. We work in good faith intending to be accurate. So what is going on when a mistake happens?


One of the reasons for mistakes is due to the way our eyes work. We have no control over the movement of our eyes as we ‘read’ a piece of data.


Take the bank account number 89792939. As our eyes look at the numbers, they jerk backwards and forwards across the numbers. We tend to look at the overall shape of the digits rather than each individual digit, so it is easy to create repeated digits, transpose them, create repeated digits or just read them incorrectly.


To avoid this, at The Accuracy People we teach people a technique called the ‘advantage of threes’, where you name each single digit in your head, using a waltz-type rhythm to emphasise each group of three: 897 929 39.


Sub-verbalising the digits in this way means it’s possible to ‘listen’ for mistakes as well as to look for them. There are different techniques for working with grouped (or clustered) data like telephone numbers, or punctuated data like sort codes or salary amounts, or alphanumeric data like postcodes or National Insurance numbers. Learning and practising these techniques with different types of data is proven to reduce human data error by 50-60%.



The brain sees what it expects to see

Another major factor is how our brains work when we look at data or text.


You cna raed tihs sentnece even thoghu most of teh wrods are not splled crroectly because our brians see waht we expcte to see, not waht is actaully tehre.


Our reading skills get in the way of our accuracy skills, so we tend to look at the overall shape of data. Moreover, when we are familiar with a task and know what to expect, it’s easy for our brains to ‘sort out’ mistakes for us, so we don’t even ‘see’ them. There is nothing wrong with our optic nerve, but our brain automatically compensates for the mistakes in front of our eyes. This is why it can be so hard to believe we’ve made a ‘silly’ error. But when it is pointed out to us, or we examine the data more carefully, we can see it immediately.



Being present-minded

At the Accuracy People, we talk about adopting an accuracy mindset. Related to concentration and attention to detail, present-mindedness goes one stage further. We define it as ‘being fully engaged in the task and all factors affecting it’. This means that accuracy is improved by being aware of the consequences of errors and by taking conscious steps to mitigate the risk. Since most of the time we are mostly accurate, we become lulled into a false sense of complacency. It is important to adopt a ‘self-sceptical’ approach where you assume a questioning approach to your work. Actively looking for mistakes before processing data means you are likely to find them before they do any damage and when they are easy and quick to correct.



Tackling errors head-on

Other causes of error include: being stressed; memory lapses and not knowing how to manage distractions.


Mistakes are a drain on productivity. They waste time and cause us to be inefficient. And they sometimes have far-reaching damaging consequences. We try to combat error with systems instead of developing human critical thinking skills to spot the problems which systems never can. Make no mistake: it pays to develop your accuracy skills.


If you’re looking to improve your accuracy skills, our One-day Accuracy Skills workshop is a practical yet fun day where people improve both data and written accuracy skills. Workshops are online and run throughout the year.


Or, if you would like more in-depth training, our Developing an Eye for Accuracy and Accurate Written Communication courses are ideal for teams that want to drill down in-depth into either data or written accuracy.


You can visit The Accuracy People’s website to learn more about what they do, and access  resources such as free monthly tests.


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