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How Does Human Error Affect Your Projects? April 8, 2014

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.
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In January 2008, several factors came together that caused two airliners to collide on the ground in San Francisco. Both were being pushed back from their respective gates at night, and because of a combination of procedural errors, assumptions, and environmental factors, they came to be at the same place at the same time. Can we learn anything from this incident?

To reduce or eliminate such events, Canada’s transportation authority commissioned a report in 1993 that studied underlying causes of aviation accidents, especially as related to maintenance. While I personally have not had projects come to ends as tragic or expensive as a plane crash, the results of the report provide some useful insights into the human side of our work.

A project manager should evaluate a project’s results to improve efficiency and learn lessons for next time. Often, we focus on tangible aspects of the project—a budget or timeline, changing goals, or technical issues. However, unless the manager is in tune with the human aspects of a project, there may be several complications that are not immediately identifiable but play a significant role in success or failure. The aviation and industrial engineering fields include the study of “human factors” for just this reason.

This focus is the basis for Transport Canada’s report, which identified 12 factors as the root causes of many failures. Think about how these human factors may apply to your projects:

  1. Lack of communication
  2. Complacency
  3. Lack of knowledge
  4. Distraction
  5. Lack of teamwork
  6. Fatigue
  7. Lack of resources
  8. Pressure
  9. Lack of assertiveness
  10. Stress
  11. Lack of awareness
  12. Norms (individual or organizational culture or habits)

Can the same human errors that contribute to aircraft accidents affect your client’s product? At least half of the list can be applied to any project: Communication, knowledge, resources, organizational culture, teamwork, and stress all play roles in any endeavor. While the hazards of complacency, distraction, and lack of awareness are clearly more critical in certain high-risk industries, they still remain important factors to consider when planning and evaluating a project.

Complacency refers simply to the thought that the way things have been is the way they will continue to be. Humans perceive that familiar tasks are not as risky as novel ones. It is apparent whenever managers provide off-the-shelf solutions to unique problems. “If it worked before, why not now?” Of course, not only does this attitude do a disservice to the client, but the design runs the risk of being outright faulty.

Industry defines “awareness” with respect to the physical environment and the activity around the individual. In the office, it is just as important in the abstract, as managers and staff must be aware of various pieces of a project and how different disciplines and functional divisions must work together in parallel. If the project scope is adjusted, the impact must be understood and incorporated into all the project phases, or the team may face severe declines in productivity and morale.

Distraction is a facet of daily life that we take for granted, if often unwillingly. E-mails, phone calls, and computer problems all take their toll on the “real” work. The firm should limit the amount of time an individual needs to spend on non-billable tasks, but managers should also be vigilant to ensure that the team is not hopping from task to task. Not only is there a risk of overlooking critical information, but the team becomes less efficient and spends too much time getting back to what they were doing before being interrupted.

Managers often obsess over the three legs of the project but overlook the people who are making the entire thing go. Those desiring to understand why the budget was blown or the product was delivered late may want to look at the organization first. In the case of the two tangled airliners, luckily no one was injured; but time and money were lost to deal with the incident. Learn the effects of human factors and you may just be able to avoid a crash.

Originally published in CE News, October 2008


Correction “for the record”: A little righteous indignation goes a long way March 18, 2014

Posted by Jason in Writing.
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For you non-aviators out there, a flying-specific piece is probably not helpful in your everyday work.  However, AOPA – the general aviation advocacy and lobbying organization of which I am a member – has acted in a way that I think many business leaders could learn from.

The Malaysian airline accident, along with virtually every other airplane crash, gives news outlets endless fodder – some factual, some not so much – for dramatic stories and interviews.  Just within the U.S., several fatal crashes have rightfully become newsworthy and ABC in particular took the opportunity to highlight some of the danger.

Even as a casual pilot, I note a few inaccuracies in ABC’s characterization of pilot training and the connection (if any) to accidents.  AOPA, as might be expected, worked itself into a froth over the issue.  Blog posts, video responses, letters – all worthy forums for discussing the issues.  In my opinion, however, they’re missing the point.

As a pilot myself, I suffer the “curse of expertise” as much as the next guy.  It’s hard to put yourself in the position of a novice or layperson, but I believe this step is critical to making the right move when faced with some bad press.  And my initial guess is that unless a non-pilot actually lives near a general aviation airport, specifically one of those affected by a crash,

They  do  not  care.

They don’t care that there were 444 rather than 475 fatalities.  They don’t care what the general aviation flight training syllabus contains or how many hours a private pilot has spent with an instructor.  They don’t care that there are more or fewer pilots than before.

AOPA on the other hand feels that these statistics will sway the general public.  Righteous indignation that a news outlet has presented a mostly true, though perhaps factually inaccurate portrayal of their industry (is there an industry that has not experienced this?) has blinded the discussion to what it means to engage with the public.  Rather than explain how the news is all wrong (and by extension, the very people you would like to persuade otherwise), it might be better to acknowledge some of the shortcomings that allow these news stories to exist in the first place.

Like cars, motorcycles, and boats, aircraft come with their own share of risks and rewards.  In fact, the NTSB keeps track of this sort of thing:

In addition, the annual Nall Report breaks down aviation accidents and discusses causes and solutions.  In particular, we can see from the 2010 report that fixed-wing accidents are on a slight downward trend.

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

Nall 2010 Non-commercial accidents

But I would not consider it fair reporting to claim that such a trend is evidence that pilots and instructors are doing everything right, any more than it would be fair to claim that 200 fatal crashes a year means you – YOU! – could be next.  Not that AOPA is quite saying it this way, but one could imagine that if a news outlet held up this chart to tout improved safety, AOPA would probably not make a peep.

Rather, this chart illustrates to me (besides an inexplicable vertical scale) that all other things being equal, we can expect to experience about 1,300 crashes a year, about 3 or 4 every day.

Our challenge as pilots is to keep things from being equal from year to year.

At worst, the ABC piece might discourage a few people who might otherwise consider flight training.  It might give more ammunition to folks who would like to close their local airfield for fear of another crash.  It might lead the NTSB and FAA to implement stricter training requirements, as was done after the Colgan crash in Buffalo.

All of these are valid concerns for pilots and other users of general aviation.  But the solution is not to explain why someone’s fears should be dismissed because the facts weren’t quite right.  No amount of good press will erase a person’s memory as witness or victim of an aircraft accident.  And for the rest of the population, aviation’s righteous indignation that a news outlet would dare publish a piece like this only further alienates the outsiders we would very much like to bring in.

Bureaucracy as a Crutch March 14, 2014

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Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it. – Seth Godin

Seth’s post about bureaucracy strikes a chord with anyone who works in or around large organizations.  Especially as consultants, roles in which we are often presented with the worst parts of an organization, several months can be spent simply cutting through the red tape to make things happen.

Large organizations quite often have individuals who have a vision for where the group could be.  But as Seth points out, these people are often tempered by risk-averse policies and procedures put in place to avoid bad press, potential unhappy customers, or internal HR issues.  Nevertheless, large organizations manage to fall over themselves (I’m talking to you, airlines) when policies restrict customer-facing employees from helping the very people for whom they are there in the first place.

It takes a great deal of time, money, and human energy to change the course of large bureaucracies.  Indeed, while corporations seem to at least make feeble attempts now and gain, governments appear to be beyond help in many ways.  Those with the power to tax and spend a nation’s wealth seem more and more inclined to do so, with few within the government seeming to have any will at all to strive for greatness.  And if our collective vision for greatness must come from those who lead – at every level – we seem to be sorely lacking the will to do any better.

Corporations, especially those large enough to regularly find themselves in national or world news, at least seem to be cautiously interested in trying new things, projects for which outside consultants often provide a valuable objective viewpoint.  If you work for one of these organizations, it often is as “simple” as demonstrating some economic value of the innovation in question.  Of course, it then is necessary to present such a case to the right people – which presents its own challenges.  Unfortunately, the more policies and people your organization has, the more likely it will be to have some of those people gaming the system and bending the bureaucracy back on itself.  Loopholes and technicalities can be blessings or curses depending on which side of the issue one finds oneself.

Eliminating defects – or multiplying talent? November 25, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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“First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman has been out for nearly 15 years.  If you are a manager, work for a manager, or even work near a manager, I highly recommend it as a quick read with some good ideas.  Like any management book, there are few one-size-fits-all solutions to the range of organizations out there, but this one – as the title suggests – provides a different perspective on the business world in general and highlights many of the dysfunctions that keep the average organization from being excellent.

Rather than summarize the whole book (which by the way has been distilled into a great set of notes a la Powerpoint) I took note of one easily overlooked point.  The book is geared toward management and managers, being organized around interviewing, motivating, and retaining truly great employees.  However, nestled in the chapter about hiring talented individuals is a bit of a footnote section called “Study Your Best”.

However your current team has been assembled, it will demonstrate some range of performance.  In many organizations, managers fight an uphill battle to reduce failures, defects, weaknesses, and overall poor performance, often by creating more and more policies, procedures, and rigid enforcement of things like TPS reports.  In my own consulting engagements, this is a natural pursuit, as it yields quick, measurable results for the client.  The authors point out however,

Conventional wisdom asserts that good is the opposite of bad, that if you want to understand excellence, you should investigate failure and then invert it.  In society at large, we define good health as the absence of disease…In the working world, this fascination with pathology is just as pervasive…

Rather, you should

Learn the whys, the hows, and the whos of your best and then select for similar talents.

“Fewer Defects” is an example of one tool that organizations use to work toward true excellence, but it does not in and of itself get them there.  You can’t have an excellent organization if you produce defective products, but 100% accuracy does not mean you have an excellent organization.  Instead, focus on those things that your people do well, and apply them to others.  Don’t waste time filling in gaps of talent with more and more policies and procedures.

Truly excellent people find the right way to do their job for their individual talents – and love doing so.  Anything else is papering over people who may simply not be in a job that makes the best use of their talents.

Scaffolding of Change September 10, 2013

Posted by Jason in Daily PM.
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Quite often during a consulting engagement, a client will question the need for a particular tool or meeting that has been implemented as part of the project.  It might be a new method of data collection, additional paperwork for change management, or a rigorous weekly review of project deliverables.

In some cases, these things are intended to become part of the client’s new way of doing business.  It is what they have paid the consultant to bring to the organization: some change in the way managers make decisions, the way their product is developed and produced, or increased efficiency of the operation.  Quite often however, the ultimate outcome – behavior change – doesn’t depend on any particular form or spreadsheet or meeting.  The specific tool is less relevant than its use in facilitating and catalyzing the desired change.  Indeed, it is merely scaffolding – something that is necessary for construction but nevertheless temporary.

Many clients fail to recognize the time and effort required to construct this scaffolding (and tear it down at the end).  It can be a project in and of itself, but is not the “real work” that they expect to see.  The deliverables of scaffolding – the most visible and tangible of the consultant’s early work on a project – are often frustrating distractions from the true operation.  It is often difficult to perceive the behavior change going on behind the scenes and this can in turn can put the project at risk.

From the consultant’s point of view, it is important to clarify as early as possible what the project will and won’t deliver.  It’s also important to outline the need for some of the tools that will be used during the engagement and specify which will be permanent and which will be temporary.  The client then is obligated to take on some of this “extra work” as their part of the bargain.  They hired the consultant to facilitate organizational change – this won’t occur without the processes more regimented than they were used to before.


Small Victories July 22, 2013

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So often, especially with social media posts flying like mosquitoes around a barbecue, we read the same platitudes over and over, having long since taken any real meaning from them.  Sometimes, however, someone will recast even tired sayings with a different perspective – and in the process provide a way to create real actions out of them.

In today’s Monday Morning Memo, Alan Weiss sums up in just a few words what many consultants’ clients often have the most difficulty with.

“If you never fail, you become comfortable with increasingly minor victories.”

I can’t count how many times I have advised clients that they need to just take that first step.  Develop a log of actions for the week, start breaking long-term, unmanageable tasks into smaller bite-size chunks.  And it works…for a while.  Alan’s advice warns that the small satisfactions obtained from crossing off to-do lists is only good as we progress forward a few steps – it is not a path to long-term growth.

Another aspect of my consulting work is continuous improvement.  Once an organization has mastered a particular method, it’s time to look ahead to how it can be improved.  This may mean, by the way, that it be eliminated in favor of a new method.  Need to have a meeting established to implement a new program?  Fine.  But don’t forget to terminate it when the project is done.  Don’t even let it “evolve” into a meeting that covers some other topic.  Make conscious decisions to maintain those tools that continue to add value.  Be especially critical of meetings, but really, anything goes.  Forms, procedures, job descriptions – everything will eventually change to accommodate new technologies, skills, competitors, and regulations.

Those small victories are indeed critical to building positive habits and motivating an organization going through a difficult change process.  But small victories eventually will only provide the illusion of progress through activity rather than bona fide results.  Crossing off to-do lists is an important step, but always challenge yourself and your organization to take on ever bigger goals.  Continuous improvement comes at a price: not being 100% perfect.  Accept that some ‘failures’ will occur and that your learning of a new process is as important as getting it right the first time.

Can you manage people without destroying trust? May 28, 2013

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Most of us might not readily associate project management – or any other management – with the fields of sociology or political science.  But just as engineering is the application of scientific principles toward a specific objective, management is very much the application of social sciences to coordinating groups toward an objective.

Unfortunately, sociology is rarely given much consideration in engineering curricula, and only passing interest in many business courses.  Surely, many business concepts are founded on sociological and psychological theory, but students aren’t often exposed to the raw studies or how more obscure analysis might be applied in new ways.  What is business and economics but a subset of the continual interactions we have with others every day of our lives?

Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans wrote Middle American Individualism in 1988 as a short examination of the public’s relationship to Big Business and Big Government, especially Americans’ unique distrust of large organizations.  Though focused on how government can better reach such a disaffected population, the book yields some very interesting insights – several of which crop up again in the more recent Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam highlights the significant drop in “social capital” since the 1960’s and uses decades of survey data to analyze reasons and consequences.  He singles out our collective trust in each other – or rather lack of it – as being a contributing force in our declining social capital, the glue that allows our various short- and long-term activities to be reciprocated in the future.  Social capital could in some ways be a synonym for a more familiar business buzzword: synergy.  In short, the sum of our social connections is greater than the individuals we know.

In particular, Putnam highlights the concept of economic “transaction costs” as a consequence of less social capital and trust.  It is these transaction costs that hold particular pertinence to management.  We can think of transaction costs as the various tangible and intangible investments, such as research, bargaining, and enforcement (especially through contracts and courts), of any particular exchange.  These may be informal and individual (the time and effort involved in preparing a dinner for a sick neighbor) or complex business agreements (the process of hiring an engineer, preparing a contract, and executing the work).

Whenever we use a written contract, we increase the cost of that transaction – sometimes literally when we pay attorneys to draft them.  Aside from this, there are other intangible costs derived from the effort involved in setting up the agreement, managing the specific deliverables, and enforcing any variances.  To be sure, complex engineering designs do require clear contracts.  But has our litigious society forced us into formal agreements for even trivial matters?  When we micro-manage a project, do we inherently distrust the other parties when we insist on written documentation of every single activity?

Many businesspeople around Montana pride themselves on the magnitude of agreements executed with a handshake.  Similarly, master consultant Alan Weiss has noted that contracts are part of the implementation, not the sales process.  If you haven’t established the deliverables beforehand, the contract is premature at best.  Quite often, you may find yourself explaining away these written documents as “formalities”.  By requiring them, we are expressing at least some degree of distrust.  When developing relationships, that is the last thing you want to do.

The United States of Energy May 7, 2013

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Where’s Uranium?

The United States of Energy – Blog About Infographics and Data Visualization

This is a very compelling visual presentation of the U.S. energy resources, as well as some interesting statistics about production and consumption.  Well researched and well put together.

However, from a mining perspective, there is an interesting discontinuity in the selection of resources.  The map clearly outlines oil, gas, and coal reserves, with the implicit knowledge that these are raw materials that must be processed in order to be useful.

Similarly, wind, geothermal, and solar are shown in areas where they are most likely to be efficiently produced.  In a sense, they are like the reserves of more familiar resources.

Hydro is unique, but only in the sense that a dam is required, so the discrete facility seems an appropriate metric.  One could theoretically map individual rivers based on their flows and gradients, but that would become unwieldy.  I find the map characterizes this resource well.

But what about nuclear?  Interestingly, the chart’s authors have chosen to map nuclear power plants rather than the mineral deposits that fuel them.  Just like oil, coal, and gas are shipped to a variety of refineries for downstream processing, nuclear fuels move across state lines as well.  But refineries and coal- and gas-fired power plants aren’t shown on the map – nor should they be.  They don’t represent resources, just links in the chain between the raw fuel and the end user.  Interesting statistics perhaps, but a different topic.

If the authors intend to show the energy resources available in the U.S., uranium reserves are an important part of the discussion.  We often think of oil drilling as being distinct from mining, not only in form, but in product.  Generally, mining consumes energy from other sources to produce non-energy products.  In the case of nuclear fuels – as with coal – mining plays an equally important role and the accompanying resources represent important aspects of our energy policy.

Learning from Mayo April 3, 2013

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Here in Montana, one of our local hospitals recently partnered with the Mayo Clinic.  As someone who thankfully doesn’t yet require the services of this world-class organization, I am one of many people who have heard of how great it is, but didn’t really understand what made it different.  As happens quite often, I found a great resource that opened up a new world of management methods – but I had to look in a different section of the library.

Deep in the MSU Billings library – in the healthcare management section – you can find “Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside One of the World’s Most Admired Service Organizations.”  This quick read highlights many of the Mayo brothers’ approaches to healthcare and management, and is purposefully sprinkled with examples for managers in other industries.  Like so many other gems however, you often have to look outside your own sector for new insights.

What does the Mayo Clinic have to do with, say, engineering or project management?  Plenty.  Here are two important examples:

Mayo Clinic practices what they call “destination medicine”.  Physicians, radiologists, specialists, surgeons, labs – all in one place.  The patient doesn’t cross town from clinic to clinic, waiting days for test results or diagnoses.  Engineers might call their operations “full service”.  But it’s not as easy as putting a slogan on your website.

Mayo is designed around a collaborative environment.  They don’t start with a particular specialty and then hire for it.  They start with people who are hired for their commitment to their patients and their professional development – as well as the development of their colleagues.  Being a medical “destination” is not simply having a large campus and a catalog of services – it is the open interaction among professionals that allows patients the effective care they need to define Mayo as the destination in their own minds.  The question for other sectors: Are you providing truly integrated services, or are your business offerings still siloed by overprotective managers and excessive bureaucracy?

Next, Mayo goes out of its way to present a professional appearance and instill confidence in the brand.  From dress codes to personal attention by any staff member, the leadership understands that patients cannot necessarily judge their services on a technical level.  Rather, they (and all of us) will substitute other aspects to decide whether the organization is “professional”.

Physical spaces, for instance, are well lit and noise is kept to a minimum.  These are not necessarily important for quality clinical care (though it probably helps), but a patient would surely not feel as at ease in a tightly confined, noisy office.  The doctor may truly know his stuff, but he isn’t exactly presenting the best image.

Similarly, are your project managers presenting a professional image to your clients?  Are your offices kept neat, with quiet spaces for meetings and clean desks?  Perhaps this isn’t important to you and your staff, but it may make the difference if a client is trying to determine whether your firm has the professionalism to undertake the next big project.

Though most organizations will not have the weighty impact that comes from saving lives, the organizational leadership in any firm can learn a lot from those that do.  Remember to look outside your own industry now and again for great insights into management successes.

One-way Trip to the Twitterverse April 2, 2013

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More and more of my own interests are taking flight on Twitter.  Primarily to follow important news in project management (business) and aviation (mostly pleasure, sometimes business), I am now up and running in the Twittersphere as well.

A happy consequence is that I can now also tweet some of the things that don’t quite make it into this blog.  You definitely won’t find any celebrity updates or sports analysis, but please do follow if you’re interested in management, psychology, economics, organizational behavior, or business in general (and the occasional aviation comment).

You can find me @JBurkePE

See you out there.