Don’t Oversimplify Simplification
A month or so ago we had a safety tip on the hierarchy of controls, where one of the controls that we said you could use was minimization or simplification. The idea was that processes that are overly complicated or where you have more things (materials, tools, people, processes, etc.) than is necessary may lead to mistakes or may make mistakes more dangerous. This makes sense because we can all think of things in our own work where an unnecessarily complicated or cluttered process caused a lot of problems for us. The same is likely true for our workers, except that when you are dealing with hazards, problems can become accidents.
This is like an issue that we all are facing these days – information or data overload. There are so many sources of data coming at us that it’s hard to keep track of it all. And it seems like the solution is to simplify things. But as Professor David Woods, a researcher in data overload, tells us – data overload is not a problem of too much information. It is a problem of too little meaning. The human mind is capable of processing vast amounts of information, but only if that information is meaningful to us. If data isn’t placed in an appropriate context or if it doesn’t easily relate to what we are doing or our goals then the data becomes useless or worse than useless, i.e., a distraction. But when data informs us about our environment in ways that is useful in helping us achieve our goals then we can process a huge amount of data. Basically, the solutions to data overload are not to reduce the amount of data, it is to increase the usefulness or meaning of the data. The way to know if you have a data overload problem is not to measure the amount of data but measure the usefulness or informativeness of the data.
Relating this back to safety and the hierarchy of controls, minimization or simplification can be valuable. But in trying to minimize or simplify we may inadvertently remove something that was actually useful or helpful to the people doing the work. As a result, the way to start a program of minimization or simplification is not to measure the amount of things you have, but to measure how useful or helpful the things are to the people who do that work.
Want an easy way to get started? The solution is easy – talk to your workers. You can ask them questions like:
What would happen if we got rid of (or reduced the amount of) this?
What kinds of situations is this useful for?
What does this hinder or get in the way of when you’re doing your work?
Then engage in a discussion about how important whatever it is you’re interested in minimizing or simplifying is, i.e., is the cost worth the benefit?
Alternatively, if you think your processes could use some minimization or simplification but don’t have anything specific in mind you could just go out and ask people questions like:
What’s the dumbest thing we ask you to do around here?