Performance by Kevin McManus

ISE Magazine –Volume: 49, Number: 08

Three times a process

How long does it take you to learn a new process? How often do you get to practice doing something new before you are required to go live and not make mistakes? As industrial and systems engineers, we often have to project how long it should take someone to learn a new task or change how jobs are performed to get better results. How many cycles of practice do we allow for learning?

As a young IE, I gave little thought to such questions. Back then things were not changing as fast as they are in today’s work world. We did not have the added complexities that technology can unintentionally contribute to incorrect job performance. Today, job change is inevitable. In turn, we need to become more mindful of how long it can take to climb a new learning curve. I have gained the greatest insights into this issue by looking at myself and how quickly I adapt to new processes.

For example, I needed to learn both the Microsoft and Apple operating systems at the same time and continue to learn new software applications. For two operating systems, screen and keyboard design differences initially contributed to high error rates and lost time on my part. Screen design also factors into learning new software versus struggling through.

We encounter the same types of cognitive challenges when it comes to learning to navigate a new workplace layout or drive safely through a new traffic configuration. How much time for trial and error can we allow on the job?

For me, it takes roughly three to five process cycles to stop making the big errors when it comes to learning a simple task. Operating systems and software require even more learning cycles. The two key takeaways, however, are the same. We have to practice the process with the intent of learning how to do it right in order to do it correctly. Perhaps more importantly, we have to remember that our minds and bodies will adapt to the new configuration if we allow enough time. But adaptation comes with process waste and error costs.

What types of tools, training and job aids do you give workers to help them learn how to assemble a redesigned part or set up a new job? As a frequent flyer, I have observed ground crews learning to set up new boarding ramps and operate new jetways at multiple airports and watched gate agents agonize to learn new check-in and boarding software. Sometimes, the new systems are designed so poorly that people are still struggling even after six months.

How much help did they have in learning to do the job right in the first place? Often, it looks as if someone just dumped the new configuration on them and hoped they would figure things out. I wonder how involved the process owners were in designing and making the process changes. How often have you seen someone throw a new process over the wall and hope the users figure things out?

Personal awareness – mindfulness, if you will – is needed in all of these cases to help minimize the duration of, and errors related to, new learning curves. Knowing our limitations and requirements in this performance area will help us better appreciate the challenges others face when they are learning something new.

Because we all struggle to rewire our neural networks, we need to recognize the obligations that engineers have to base our process designs on sound human factors principles. We also need to provide effective job aids to support rapid, but effective, learning. Change is going to happen. My hope is that we make these changes positive learning experiences instead of creating learning nightmares.