Why Square Pegs Fit Into Round Holes

Oftentimes after an error or failure event leaders, managers and other team members may retrospectively examine the events with curiosity and an aim to determine why the failure or error occurred. This is natural and is a good thing. After all, we should try to learn from failure and attempt to prevent its reoccurrence while learning how to improve our processes. Unfortunately, when examining error and failure, many investigators miss the big picture and how design influences decisions.

I recently finished a book by Jeremy Baines and Clive Howard called UX LIFECYCLE: The business guide to implementing great software user experiences. Now, you may be thinking, “Hey Randy, you’re an operations performance guy, what’s with the software stuff?” That’s a great question. This book makes some excellent points about the design of systems and although it relates to software, it describes many challenges that users and workers face on a routine basis, from workflow inefficiencies to technology that may not be optimized for the task.

Fundamentally, I believe that most error and failure in the workplace and with operational teams can be linked back to causal factors related the design of the system and how workers interact with the components of this system. This could include procedures, tools and equipment, workflow, or other parts of the work system.  We need to start looking at workers and employees as users of the systems that leadership and management provide them to accomplish their tasks and achieve the mission of the organization. That is where studying UX (or User Experience) starts to get really interesting. Some of the key principles of good UX include Consistency, Familiarity, Expectation and Trust.1 I like abbreviations, so let’s call this CFET.  Imagine you are a consumer trying to purchase something online and you visit a website that has an inconsistent look or feel. Perhaps you are on your mobile device and the site is not optimized for mobile. You have to swipe all over the screen to read the entirety of the text on the page. The lack of familiarity may run counter to your expectations of what a mobile site should look like in 2017. What kind of experience does this give you? Does it build your trust in the site? How will that influence your decision to buy?

While these are simple questions related to perhaps everyday situations, I think there are parallels faced by workers as they attempt to use the operational work methods and tools to get the job done.

Consistency: Do the procedures and work methods developed for the workers provide them with a consistent experience? I remember a while ago when I flew the legacy version of the KC-130 Hercules we had some aircraft with different configurations and upgrades. Some had various types of equipment that were different from others. The lack of consistency tended to slow things down.

Familiarity: Is the experience familiar to workers? Related to the points above, consistency tends to lead to familiarity and that tends to increase proficiency. When a task becomes more and more familiar to workers they tend to become more proficient.

Expectation: When we do something for a while we tend to expect the same thing again and again. Have you recently sat in a new automobile and looked at the layout and design of the automatic transmission console? What used to look like PRND1,2 (or something similar) may not look that way at all in some vehicles. In some cases there are button layouts or a combination of a shift stick and buttons. This may require some adjustment when trying to get used to an unfamiliar layout. Does this ever happen to workers? Have you ever seen workers attempting to use a new tool without training? Oftentimes the way the tool performs is not as they may have expected and without training, it can be hard to adjust expectations. This can lead to errors as well.

Trust: Trust is one of the most fundamental requirements in operational teams and business. Without trust performance tends to break down. The legacy version of the KC-130 Hercules I used to fly had an automated system to detect when the aircraft was in close proximity to the ground and would provide warnings and aural alerts. The system consistently failed to pass its self-test. Additionally, it seemed to give false positive alerts and crews grew more and more wary of trusting the system.  The solution was to pull the circuit breaker so we wouldn’t have to listen to it and we relied on our own planning and situational awareness to maintain terrain clearances. Does this sound like a trustworthy system? When I flew the newer, more automated version of the aircraft (referred to as the J Model) the system was much more improved and reliable. Because it worked consistently we trusted it and had a system we could rely on as a strong backup to help avoid Controlled Flight Intro Terrain.

If leaders and managers violate the principles of consistency, familiarity and expectation how can they expect workers to trust the processes and work methods provided for them? When either no standardized work methods are provided (or if Standard Operating Procedures are deficient), if the proper tools and technology are not provided and validated as useful and if production demands are not aligned with team capabilities, workers will often find a way to get the job done. If or when failure occurs, why should workers be blamed?

To me this is why the intersection of UX, process improvement methods and crew performance systems (such as Crew Resource Management) are necessary to help create the best possible work system and to equip workers to do their best work to meet the operational goals of the organization. In 2017 we will be focusing a lot more on things like workflow, process improvement, and overall improvement in operations. I would be honored to help you meet your operation performance goals! If you want to receive more content related to material in this post, please subscribe below. Additionally, if V-Speed can be of service to help you improve your processes and operational performance, please fill out this contact form and let us know how we can help.

1. Baines, Jeremy, and Clive Howard. UX LIFECYCLE: The business guide to implementing great software user experiences. : Uxlifecycle.com, 2016.