Approach to Reducing Human Error in the Office

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ReducingError introThere is an insurance company’s television commercial that displays the capitulation of and reenactment of human errors; a car door opening while a car comes along and knocks the door off, forgetting to put the brake on the car and having it roll unmanned downhill, and a car with two bicycles on top crashing into a garage door, all products of what is shown to be human error.

Most mistakes are thought to be caused by human error, yet most mistakes are caused by errors in design rather than human operation so says author James Reason in his book: The psychology of Mental Lapses and Everyday Errors. By knowing the cause of an error can increase one’s ability to incorporate design strategies that can reduce frequencies and/or severity.

When a mistake happens, most people look for someone to blame. Knowing whose fault it is somehow eases the pain. The challenge that arises out of human error is that there can be two approaches: the person approach and the system approach. Each approach has its causation design and gives way to hallucinations of mistake management.

Person Approach

Commonality of thought has human error categorized as mental mistakes such as inability to remember, inattention, lack of motivation, or what’s commonly called negligence. Therefore, the most sort after approach is to create a counterbalance in human behavior. These methods include writing procedures, taking legal action, and threat of discipline, finding blame or numerous training activities. These approaches take on the problem from a bad moral prospective.

System Approach

The system approach operates from the perspective stuff happens, and mistakes are prone to happen. “Errors are seen as consequences rather than causes, having their origins not so much in perversity of human nature as in “upstream” systematic behavior.” Therefore since we cannot change human condition, we can change the condition which humans work.

Choosing an Approach

Although with the person approach, there is gratification in knowing that there is someone to blame for a mistake and that person or group will have to bear responsibility, there are still shortcomings in this approach. Because the system is fear-based it thwarts growth potential.

“Effective risk management depends crucially on establishing a reporting culture. Without a detailed analysis of mishaps, incidents, near misses, and “free lessons”, we have no way of uncovering recurrent error traps or knowing where the edge is until we fall over it. The complete absence of such a reporting culture within the Soviet Union contributed crucially to Chernobyl disaster. Trust is a key element of a reporting culture, and this in turn requires the existence of a just culture- one possessing a collective understanding of where the line should be drawn between blameless and blameworthy actions”.


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is a prime example of the system approach. The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation. Whenever and wherever nationally (and sometimes abroad) there is a “mistake” be it human, technology or mechanical, they are relentless in finding solutions to ensure that those mistakes are not duplicated. They carry out studies and evaluations of every relevant factor and they anticipate the worst and sees to it that the evaluations are reported on all levels of the organizational authority.

Utilizing Approach Systems in the Office

Minimize mistakes by increasing situational awareness and reducing noise and distractions in the workplace. Make key indicators and controls within eye span where possible. Reduce stress in the workplace by creating a comfortable work environment. Consider a reporting system that requires just enough feedback without being invasive. Create an office environment that promotes thinking and creativity. Create a system that makes use of occasional setbacks and free lessons.