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Basic Business Cents: Design systems to avoid mistakes

It has been said to err is human. Maybe making mistakes is part of being human but we don't have to accept that nothing can be done to improve our workers' (and ourselves') pattern of making mistakes. They occur because of the interaction of people with a system. The outcome can be improved by redesigning the system to make the occurrence of mistakes less likely.

Proper methods for mistake proofing are not directed at changing people's behavior, but rather at changing the system to prevent errors. Mistake proofing can be achieved by using technology, such as automating repetitive tasks. Boredom from doing repetitive tasks can be diminished by rotating workers on such tasks, building in reminders, and providing documented steps to follow for a process.

Many mistakes are made as a result of forgetting to do something. Tools to aid memory include checklists, alarms that serve as reminders or mistake detectors, and training. Sometimes mistakes occur when people are dealing with things that look nearly the same. To reduce mistakes steps should be taken to break patterns. This can be done by color coding, sizing, using different symbols, or separating similar items.

We can always learn from others and examples of mistake proofing abound around us. One example can be found at fast food restaurants. Cash registers simply have pictures of products on the keys so if a customer ordered a hamburger, the attendant simply presses the key with the picture of a hamburger on it and the correct price appears. Another example is a retail service shop that provides a service but also sells related products. Problems with incorrect prices charged, forgetting to charge for the product, and ignoring selling the products because of the hassle of looking up the price were solved with software similar to that used by the fast food restaurants. At the same time, inventory levels are updated with each transaction.

Large manufacturing organizations have greatly minimized mistakes by automation of repetitive tasks. Some boring jobs are eliminated but new jobs of more interest and satisfaction are creating in the design and operation of the robots.

The world is changing and mistake proofing is a new field with huge payback.