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  • Santiago Garcia

Human Error

Humans aren’t perfect. On a daily basis, humans continually make errors; fender benders, forgetting to put your shoes on before you leave the house, misplacing the keys, spilling coffee, wasting resources, etc., are a few of the headaches that result from things entirely within our control. Some of these routine tasks are simple, and yet are made by even the most experienced, skilled, and disciplined people. In high stress environments and when working with technology, these small errors are more revealing and potentially have more serious consequences. If the majority of these errors aren’t done intentionally, why do they occur and are there ways to reduce their frequency? The answer lies in a basic understanding of human performance.


Human performance is a way of measuring whether or not a given task was completed accurately, competently and efficiently (HPI). Human performance can be limited by spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical factors. When these four pillars are in alignment (gratitude, preparation, levelheadedness, physically fit) they ensure peak performance. When one of them is not (emotionally drained, poor planning, anger, out of shape/poor sleep) it is impossible to give maximum effort and perform to the optimal level.


In the aviation community, it was formerly accepted that things go wrong because of chance or when something breaks. Today, it is understood that things go wrong and mishaps occur because of the compounding effect of many things (procedures, culture, equipment design, supervision, and work practices). When all of these things compound, they create an environment where an accident is only a matter of time (the straw that broke the camel’s back was death from a thousand cuts).


In most careers, a small amount of human risk is generally acceptable. It is an inherent and inevitable risk that must always be taken into consideration (no matter how small). Human beings are constantly working, and constantly surrounded by systems that are flawed. 80% of the error in the workplace is attributed to human error, and within that 80%, 70% can be attributed to organizational weaknesses and cultural flaws (HPI).


An error is essentially an unintended deviation from the desired behavior. The average operator (pilot, surgeon, athlete, driver, skydiver, etc.) makes anywhere between 5-7 errors (deviation from optimal performance) per hour. These errors can be costly to the task, as they are often done with minimal recovery time and margin for error. The average knowledge worker (designer, engineer, teacher, physician, etc.) makes an average of 15-20 errors per hour. Often times, these errors will go unnoticed because there are no events that occur as a result.


At the end of the day, unintentional human specific error isn’t a result of personality, intellect, or discipline. It is a by-product of our psychological and physiological design. The way we sense and perceive the world, being inherently biased, quick to judge, and overconfident in our own abilities often puts society in a position to attribute responsibility to the uncontrollable. A personal example of these inherently consequential biases of thinking and acting occurred on a motorcycle a few years ago. I was test-riding a Harley Davidson during Daytona Bike Week, and underestimated the power and lack of maneuverability the bike had. I was turning left at an intersection and did not use my weight enough to turn the bike. This resulted in a near miss with the cars on the opposite side of the intersection. Had I not exaggerated the turn at the last minute I would have collided with the oncoming traffic. This incident highlights human nature’s tendency to be overconfident and improperly/hazily assess the situation.


When interacting with technology, humans often become reliant and complacent when things don’t work the way they are expected to. This compliance and lack of understanding is a source of error. I know I’m not the only one who’s ever been frustrated with smart phone driving directions that didn’t verbalize cues until it was too late. In the moment, it was easy to blame the technology for ‘not working properly,’ but I failed to attribute responsibility to my lack of understanding for how to configure the device to do what I wanted it to do (connect the phone to the car’s audio system). Acknowledging this inherent relationship with technology is the first step in reducing the occurrence of these human-technology related errors.


At its core, these two examples represent human performance deficiencies. One of the ways to minimize this unpredictability and elevate performance is a model called Human Performance Improvement (HPI). This model works to minimize the gap between actual performance and desired performance. HPI is unique because it provides the operator with skills and proven techniques to set up mechanisms to recognize errors and prevent flaws. This model and skillset is essential for environments where high performing and high risk industries require maximum effort and execution from their people (transportation, health care, military, law enforcement, professional sports, etc.). Understanding human performance improvement techniques helps manage and resolve these flaws so they do not have a detrimental impact on the way humans conduct tasks.


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