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Research Shows Streamlining Procedures Best Way to Reduce Operations Errors

What’s the most important factor in reducing task errors? Employee Skills? Training Methods? or the “System” itself (aka steps used to perform the task)?blog-reduce-employee-errors-image

An interesting research study carried out by Michael Byrne of Rice University and Elizabeth Davis of the University of Texas overturns many common assumptions about employee training methods and performance improvement. They were interested specifically in why “post-completion” errors are so prevalent. In a post-completion error, a person correctly completes a series of actions but then fails—or forgets—to complete an essential final step. Running a complicated photocopying job but then walking off and leaving the original documents behind in the copier is an example of a post-completion error most of us can relate to.

To investigate this, Byrne and Davis created controlled laboratory studies and compared performance results using two distinct step sequences for completing the same task. They also, examined the relative effectiveness of employee training methods (reprimand, reinstruction, and praise) on correcting post-completion errors. We found the results, published in the journal Human Factors, “Task Structure and Post-completion Error in the Execution of a Routine Procedure” fascinating. They surprised even the researchers.

None of the “motivational manipulations (reprimand, reinstruction, and praise) had a reliable effect on altering task performance (for either task completion time or task accuracy).” The only group that consistently outperformed the others was the one that followed the better procedure in the first place.

When the standard procedure that test subjects followed included the “post completion” step within the logical sequence of the task (rather than as a separate “after task” activity), errors were drastically reduced. The only difference between the test groups was the ORDER of the steps given in the written procedure test subjects followed. Yet, the performance results showed a significant difference in error rate.

The implication for organizations wanting to improve organizational performance and reduce errors is to the most effective technique is to streamline systems and procedures. Changing corporate training methods and varying strategic management processes, such as reward versus reprimand, did not achieve the results that simply defining a clear, efficient procedure did.