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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

Employee Ethics November 20, 2012

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Taking a step back from our day-to-day work, it is always interesting to examine reasons and motivations for our actions. Any given industry comprises every background imaginable and represents cultures from around the globe. However, despite our differences, most professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors, even project managers) are obligated to similar ethical codes and owe a duty to the public to act for their benefit. Further, each individual is bound by their own personal morals as well as their employer’s particular culture. But what happens when an individual’s personal moral code conflicts with the firm’s?

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Hiring Practices November 16, 2010

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With the continuing concern over the future of engineering education, there is a greater need than ever to rethink the hiring practices of typical engineering firms. Whether or not there is an overall, worldwide shortage of engineering graduates, recent data in the United States does point to declines in engineering enrollment and subsequent graduation. If we take this to its logical conclusion, we are faced with (more…)

Professional Antithesis July 29, 2010

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Is there a conflict between engineering education and the expectations of the business world? As we observe in real time the development of younger engineers in the workplace, it is difficult to perceive the bigger picture that evolves over several years. However, as we march along through the ups and downs (more…)

Righteous Indignation June 21, 2010

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Whether you like it or not, your professional engineering career is specifically geared toward clients who likely do not understand the technical design process. You are, after all, the professional. It’s easy to develop the sense that were it not for your unique skills, your clients would surely not be able to accomplish their goals. But, as we’ve discussed before, engineering education and licensure are merely the price of admission. More experienced engineers (more…)

Just a Reminder June 13, 2010

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How do you justify your capital expenditures or budget decisions? If yours is a typical firm, management should undertake at least an informal cost/benefit assessment, but there are undoubtedly also many (more…)

Shooting the Elephant – With Lasers! April 28, 2010

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Your efforts to improve profitability are lagging. You might be staying afloat, making payroll, and beginning to reinstate a few benefits, but you’re not really doing your best work. For the most part, that might be okay, since that’s probably also (more…)

Business Safety March 25, 2010

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Civil engineers should be familiar with a construction site’s safety hazards. If not, perhaps they need to get out in the field more often; but that’s something for another time. One of the great challenges of construction — or its cousin, mining — is maintaining a “safety culture.” It is not hard to imagine that a roughneck crew of operators or miners (more…)

Why Are You Innovating? February 19, 2010

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So many names have been suggested for the last decade; the Digital Decade, Hysteria Decade, the Aughts, the Naughts, the Double-0’s. It could just as well be called the Innovation Decade — not because of any particular real innovations, but because that’s what we all thought (and continue to think) we should be doing, even if (more…)

Just Making Conversation January 4, 2010

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Perhaps the most common advice for any kind of management or leadership position is to initiate and reinforce communication among the staff or project team. To accomplish this, managers are taught to ask questions of their staff and, whenever appropriate, to discover some of their personal goals and motivations. The purpose is clear: By engaging in meaningful conversation, managers are able to monitor and evaluate the employees’ capabilities and attitudes while promoting teamwork and moving projects forward. Many recommendations regarding communication do not, however, emphasize the information-gathering tools that are necessary to rise above simple conversation and engage in a real transfer of knowledge. Put simply, there is a dramatic difference between asking, “How’s it going?” and asking for specific details about progress, resource shortages, or training. (more…)