Humans err, how do you build robust systems?

Humans err, we make mistakes all the time.  While working, it is common to feel the pressure to finish the workload on time.  Interruptions and problems with the material, equipment, or computerized systems only add more stress and increase the opportunities to make mistakes.  But those are not the only sources of stress, and therefore of defects or errors.  The process itself can be the biggest problem if it is not robust and aim to keep human error to a minimum.  A good system or process reduces the worker’s physical and mental burden by eliminating the need to inspect for common mistakes that leads to defects. 

A bad system will beat a good person every time.

W. Edwards Deming

How do you know that a process is not robust?  If it has one or more of the following characteristics is a perfect candidate for a Kaizen or continuous improvement event.   

  • It has a high defects rate
  • Nobody wants to do it; people are regularly complaining about how difficult it is
  • The workers often missed steps or use the wrong material
  • Missing parts or information 
  • The equipment is not set-up properly
  • The machine, program, or tools do not operate as desired

How do you build a robust system?  Like with any other continuous improvement activity, it is critical to have the participation of the team.  They know better than anybody else how it should work and the daily hassles and challenges.  These are some things to do to design a robust system.

  1. Learn what are the most common mistakes and rack them based on severity or frequency.  Choose one or two to tackle during this event.
  2. Listen to the voice of the customer, in this case, your employees.  Because they feel the pain and stress, it is in their best interest to fix the faulty process.  Ask them why they make mistakes?  You can use the cause and effect analysis or the 5 Why to find the root cause.   
  3. Brainstorming for improvement ideas, look for preventive measures.  How can you prevent the mistake from happening?
  4. Promote mistake-proofing devices as a method to prevent mistakes.  These devices reduce or minimize the chances of human error.
  5. While improving the process, instill on your employees the concept, Quality at the source.  Instead of having people downstream inspecting the product, each person is responsible for their work inspection.   If they find a defect, take corrective action, and avoid passing it to the next person.    

Robust systems acknowledge that mistakes happen and aim to achieve smooth processes with fewer defects. This kind of system improves the work environment by removing the blame culture.  So, instead of blaming the worker, fix the process by making it robust.