Human Error

Often, investigators identify the root cause of a problem as human error. But what exactly is human error?

An action may be judged as an error only in relation to a reference or standard. So first a standard on how to perform the task must exist. Sometimes such a standard is defined in a documented procedure. On occasion it may also be taught by a master to an apprentice on the job. Most times we just figure it out through a combination of past experience, current observations, and some fiddling. Human error, then, is action by a human that deviates from the standard.

When we judge the root cause of a problem as human error we’re making certain assumptions: 1] that a standard exists, and 2] the standard, if it exists, is adequate to the degree that mindfully following it produces the expected outcome.

Let’s grant that both the above assumptions are true, and even grant that the root cause of a problem was the failure of the worker to follow the standard. What, then, should the corrective action be that will prevent the recurrence of the problem? In my experience it has almost always been defined as “retraining”. But such a corrective action assumes that the worker failed to follow the standard because they don’t know it. Is this true? If not, retraining is pure waste and won’t do a damn thing to prevent the recurrence of the problem.

If a proper standard exists and the worker has been trained to it, then there must be some other reason for their failure to follow it. Skill-based errors (i.e. slips and lapses) can occur when the worker is unable to pay attention to or focus on performing the task they are otherwise familiar with. So it’s not a training issue. In my previous post I wrote about how willpower, our conscious awareness, is like a muscle. It can fatigue from use. As willpower is depleted the mind resorts to mental shortcuts or habits. This is how errors creep in.

We should not rely only on our ability to remain attentive and focused to ensure that the task is performed without failure. For that we must design tasks in such a way that failure is unlikely, if not impossible, to occur. Through design thinking we can develop tools, methods, and systems that help us perform better.

[1] Understanding human failure. Retrieved 2017-06-15


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