How Can We Reduce Mistakes?


There was a very interesting Horizon’s programme on BBC2 recently that discussed how surgeons have looked at other professionals who work under pressure to see how they have found ways to reduce their mistakes.

When they studied the behaviour of people under pressure they discovered that we tend to focus too much on one element of the problem and lose our situational awareness. In other words we forget to consider the bigger picture or put the situation into perspective and consider other alternatives. In the case of surgeons, fire fighters and airline pilots the consequence of losing their situational awareness is the loss of life.

Whilst most managers are not dealing with life or death situations, we are often working under pressure to achieve various objectives, both business and personal. The consequence of this is that we do make mistakes that we may not otherwise have done.

So in this article we look at a few techniques to help us reduce the mistakes that are made under pressure.

Checklists & Procedures

What the surgeon’s learned from airline pilots is that they use checklists and set procedures based upon previous experience. Even though the pilots are highly trained and know what they should be doing they religiously go through this routine. The reason why they do this is that the memory is not totally reliable and by doing this (often with another person) they ensure that things are not forgotten. When a pilot lost both engines in his aircraft over New York it was following procedures he had learned to work out the options he had available to him. Although it was unconventional he successfully landed the plane on the Hudson River without loss of life.

Whilst we might think that we don’t need checklists or we don’t need to follow exact procedures because we know what we are doing, it has been proven that fewer mistakes happen when we are disciplined to do so. Working in the electrical industry we recently heard the story of a man who died because he hadn’t followed procedure. Even with 30 years experience of working at heights he had forgotten to put a safety bar across the platform of his cherry picker and fell to his death.

The point here is that following procedures and using checklists based upon previous experience will often save time and reduce mistakes. Now these procedures should always be reviewed so that they are updated as we learn from our mistakes.

The research also taught the surgeons that everybody in the team should have a voice and be listened to. In a case study about a patient who died in surgery, a nurse made a suggestion that could have saved the patient was ignored and they didn’t like to push it because of the hierarchy. The suggestion wasn’t even an unusual one in the situation and would have been considered normally.

Communicate With Other Departments

When the surgeons began looking at some of their procedures for aftercare following surgery they realised that the process was too fragmented. This meant that there was the possibility of information being lost along the way as the patient moved from team to another. They simplified the process and made sure that at each stage there was somebody whose responsibility it was to hand over key information to the next department.

In the business world we can learn from this communication and collaboration between departments so that when we are under pressure everybody knows what is going on. Having effective systems for doing this will make it easier under pressure.

Use Our Peripheral Vision

At the beginning of this article we talked about having better situational awareness when under pressure. We can do this by using a technique to increase our peripheral vision. Instead of being too focused on one thing to the detriment of other things going on, we need to take in the whole situation.

To practice this method, pick a spot in the room to look at. Then while you are doing this, increase your awareness of other things to your left and right without moving your eyes or head. Obviously we are taught to do this when we first learn to drive as we need to be aware of potential dangers around us. We just forget to do it sometimes.

Increasing our peripheral vision helps us to improve our situational awareness so that we don’t miss anything that is going on that we need to consider particularly under pressure. By consciously increasing our peripheral vision everyday we can create a habit that will help us reduce mistakes. We can balance the work we are concentrating on with keeping an eye on everything around us.

Whilst these three techniques may seem obvious it has been proven that under pressure we lose sight of them because we give too much focus to one thing. Share these thoughts with your team to see how you can apply these techniques to help reduce mistakes. People will always make mistakes from time to time and there is no point having a blame culture. What we are doing here is to help reduce those mistakes. Creating collective responsibility and giving people the power to make suggestions without fear of being knocked back will certainly make your life easier. This in turn will help to relive the pressure on your shoulders.

Many thanks

Mark Williams

Head of Training

MTD Training | Management Blog | Image courtesy by Stuart Miles of FreeDigitalPhotos.Net

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