What is the silver bullet?

A customer recently asked me "what is the silver bullet" (the solution) when managing human error. The fact is there isn't one. If there was a silver bullet, we would have found it ages ago and there would be no more reports of human error.

To be honest, I am glad there isn't one, because all attention would turn to cutting corners, violating rules and regulations all in the name of efficiency and cost saving. If human error didn't exist, we would cease to be innovative, dynamic and adaptable in and ever changing work environment. In fact organisations would, due the very lack of innovation, cease to grow or even survive. There is enough articles on websites like linkedin to testify that many examples of business success have come from the ashes of ideas crashing and burning. Trial and error – is in our very nature.

Human error is unavoidable. However, human error can create all manner of serious consequences. For the victims, these consequences can be long term. The saddest issue is how organisations respond when human error takes place - their response seems to be one (or more) of the three listed below.

  • Persecute the individual making the error (this can also include not providing enough support). This often drives employees' self-confidence and future performance down or worse still develop severe and enduring mental health issues. It is also likely to precede a reduction in other employees disclosing incidents or near misses in the future if they perceive their colleague to have been treated harshly or unfairly.
  • Investigate and respond to that individual incident - very symptomatic approach - a bit like sticking a plaster on your head when you finally draw blood from banging it on the desk repeatedly; only to resume banging it the moment the plaster is on. This will likely fix the immediate problem but will do nothing to reduce human error reoccurring in the workplace. It also costs money, time and risks reducing workforce morale.
  • Finally, do nothing. Shrug the shoulders, then think that this sort of thing happens and carry on. Examples of this are investigative reports on drunk drinking at house parties, followed by public comments such as "boys (or girls) will be boys" and "you are only young once". Not very forward thinking in my humble opinion.

The responsibility of managing human error, and indeed human factors issues, often gets handed over to employees. Whilst having in-depth knowledge of the organisation and their area of specialism, know very little of how humans respond in given workplace situations. Only last weekend I heard the same person saying "let the [engineers] get on doing their job, they know best", along with "I don't know why that engineer behaved the way he did, he has 20 years' experience and should have known better". [Talking about an engineer committing a human error with fatal consequences].

The silver bullet, if there was ever one, is down to organisations realising that to reduce human error, they need to understand why their employees do the things they do in given circumstances. This understanding requires expertise, not just common sense, and definitely expertise from someone outside the organisation. Internal employees do not have the ability to stand back from their organisational culture, individual employee differences, knowledge and expectations to provide a truly objective view of the problem or the solution when it comes to human error. That is why, prior to posting this (potentially contentious) blog I will get it reviewed by someone outside my organisation. Have a great and error free day.

If you have any comments or would like to know more, please email us atinfo@hfex.co.nz. We would love to hear from you.​​