In the course of an average workday we make hundreds of decisions. Some of those decisions require engaging our conscious awareness. In my previous post I described how the quality of those decisions deteriorate as that awareness or willpower fatigues with use.
However, there are decisions where human error occurs with certainty even if our attention is totally focused on the task. Consider the Muller-Lyer illusion below:
The two vertical lines are of the same length. Even after knowing this, we all continue to perceive the line on the left to be longer than the line on the right. The “fact” that the two lines are of different lengths is simply obvious to us. Because of its obviousness we don’t stop to check our judgment before acting on it. Such actions, based on erroneous perception, are likely to produce faulty outcomes.
This error in our human perception/cognition system is hard-wired into our brains. No amount of retraining or conscious effort will correct it. So corrective actions that identify retraining as the way to prevent recurrence of this type of error won’t be effective. It will only serve to demoralize the worker. What, then, is an effective corrective action for such errors?
We can develop and use tools and methods that circumvent the brain’s perception/cognition system, for example with an overlay (red lines in the figure below), or actually measuring each line and comparing those values to one another. This does add a step to the evaluation process; an after-the-fact fix to a faulty design. Ideally, though, we would want our designs to take into account human limitations and avoid creating such illusions in the first place.
 Muller-Lyer illusion https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muller-Lyer_illusion Retrieved 2017-06-22
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.
 Understanding human failure. http://www.hse.gov.uk/construction/lwit/assets/downloads/human-failure.pdf Retrieved 2017-06-15