The wonderful world of error

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Larry Wilson is the author of the critical error reduction techniques in SafeStart an advanced safety awareness training program currently being used in 66 countries by over 4 million people. He is also the author of “Defenseless Moments – A Different Perspective on Serious Injuries” and co-author of “Inside-Out: Re-thinking Traditional Safety Management Paradigms”. In addition to the two books, Larry has also had over 100 articles published in safety magazines all over the world.


Larry Wilson, CEO and Author
 

SafeStart International

What in the world (pray tell) is wonderful about human error? Well, if you subscribe to the notion that “ignorance is bliss” then yes, we all live in a wonderful world. However, there are a few exceptions. For example, if you were a professional tennis player or you played at a really high level. Then they tell you (and everybody else) how many “unforced errors” you make. They also keep track of errors in baseball. How many hits, errors and men left on base are key stats for any team. They count “drops” for receivers in American football, and the list goes on. But for most of us, on a daily or weekly basis, we really don’t pay that much attention, let alone keep track, unless, of course, it’s a big error or a big mistake. Then we’re forced to take notice.

You can test your “human error IQ” with the questions below. As you will see, there is a column for your answers, and also one for your family, friends, teammates or associates (people you know).

How many mistakes or errors do you make on a weekly basis (on average)?

Note: A mistake is anything you did that wasn’t right or what you intended. It includes playing a wrong note on a musical instrument or even making an incorrect keystroke.
These are dynamic errors, like dropping your phone or keys. However, you also have to include static errors, like forgetting something.
You
Never really thought about it (how many on a daily/weekly basis). Only know that some days are worse than others.
Less than 100
101-1000
1001-2000
2001-3000

Family/Associates
Never really thought about it (how many on a daily/weekly basis). Only know that some days are worse than others.
Less than 100
101-1000
1001-2000
2001-3000

If you made a 25% decrease in the number of errors, you make or if you were making 25% more, would you notice it?

You
Yes most likely
No not likely
Not sure if I would even notice 50%

Family/Associates
Yes most likely
No not likely
Not sure if I would even notice 50%

In comparison to the people you know, do you make more mistakes, less or about the same?

You
More
About the same
Less
Don’t really notice unless someone is making more mistakes than normal

Family/Associates
More
About the same
Less
Don’t really notice unless someone is making more mistakes than normal

Do you make more mistakes when you are in a rush compared to when you are tired?

You
More when rushing
More when fatigued
Don’t really know (both cause problems)

Family/Associates
More when rushing
More when fatigued
Don’t really know (both cause problems)

How many times a week do you make mistakes because of frustration?

You
Less than 7 (one/day)
Around 14 (2/day)
Around 21 (3/day)
Depends on the day/week
Don’t really know (counting errors is not something I do when I’m frustrated)

Family/Associates
Less than 7 (one/day)
Around 14 (2/day)
Around 21 (3/day)
Depends on the day/week
Don’t really know (counting errors is not something I do when I’m frustrated)

If you were in a combination of states: in a rush to get home, frustrated with traffic and tired because it’s been a long day, have you noticed your error rate going up?

You
Yes
No
Don’t really know

Family/Associates
Yes
No
Don’t really know

If you did notice it going up, would you know by how much (25%, 50%, 75%)?

You
Probably
Probably not

Family/Associates
Probably
Probably not

We all make mistakes when we are learning or doing something new. But how much time on a weekly basis do you spend doing something new vs. doing what you know how to do well?

You
5% new
10% new
15% new
20%+ new

Family/Associates
5% new
10% new
15% new
20%+ new

Why do you/we make mistakes if we know how to do something well?

You
Thinking about something else (mind not on task)
Looking at something else (eyes not on task)
Family/Associates
Thinking about something else (mind not on task)
Looking at something else (eyes not on task)

Can you think of an error you made not when learning or doing something new that was not caused by rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency or a combination of those four states?

*Unfortunately, extreme sorrow can also cause mistakes. So can extreme joy. Fortunately, extreme joy is not a problem at most workplaces.
You
Yes*
No

Family/Associates
Yes*
No

Analysis of Quiz
Not trying to “hammer” the point home but, unless it’s a sport, we tend to go with very rudimentary “instrumentation” like the old “go” or “no go” gauges, only with error it’s more like “good days” vs. “…one of those days!” Probably the most telling is when you have to contemplate whether you make more mistakes or less than the people you know. In my case, I realized that I have no real idea how many mistakes a day the people in my family make unless it’s a lot more than normal.

So, over 90% of the time (over 95% for most) we are making mistakes when we know what we are doing. These mistakes are caused by eyes not on task and mind not on task. And yet, ironically, you can hear people say, “I can do this job with my eyes closed” or, “I know this job so well, I could do it in my sleep.” So it isn’t just that we know how to do what we’re doing, it’s that we know it so well we don’t have to think about it (we can drive home or drive to work on “auto-pilot”).
So, although it doesn’t really make sense that we make more mistakes (in total) doing things we know how to do well than when we were learning…it does start to make sense when you think about how easy it is to make mistakes when you’re running on auto-pilot and you don’t have your mind on task.

Then, if your eyes also go off task for that moment or longer in some cases it means we aren’t looking at what we’re doing and we’re not thinking about what we’re doing… Now, it’s fairly easy to see why anyone could make a mistake, even an expert.

Which is probably why we hear about experts from skydiving instructors to scuba diving instructors (and everyone in between) dying tragically all the time. Rarely is it their equipment. Much more likely they jumped without a parachute or ran out of air.

For them, complacency leading to mind not on task is the main problem. But if you then add some rushing, frustration and/or fatigue to that baseline level of complacency…or you change the order or routine so they got out of sequence…or, in some cases, they didn’t notice a change in the environment like the temperature dropping to the freezing level while driving in the warm car… it becomes easier and easier to see how all of us not just the experts can make serious performance and safety errors. COVID taught us that we could also make lots of hygiene errors on a daily/weekly basis.
So why, when everybody makes hundreds (not one or two but hundreds) of mistakes and errors on a weekly basis, is it considered “taboo” to talk about human error? What are the consequences of ignoring this? Well, one thing we know all too well in safety and health it’s not bliss.

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