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

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.

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



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