Finding what goes right





Finding what goes right

When faced with the prospect of finding at what goes right, the task is daunting, You may, of course, simply begin by looking at what others do every day – or even better, pay attention to what you do yourself. Although unfamiliar for most, it is actually not so difficult to do so once you stop looking for ‘errors’ and instead look for the basic types of performance adjustments: adjustments to create and/or maintain required working conditions, adjustments to compensate for something that may be missing (time, information, tools, materials, etc.), and finally adjustments to avoid changes and/or conditions that may be harmful or make it impossible to carry out the work.

Most people have little or no practice in looking at just what happens, and it may therefore be useful to make a deliberate effort, at least initially. Work descriptions often start from ideas about how an activity ought to be carried out – such as they are found in design documents, instructions, procedures, training materials, etc. Looking at what happens is, however, about work-as-done rather than about work-as-imagined and must therefore refer to work as it is usually is done in an everyday setting.

The best source of information for this is not surprisingly the people who actually do the work, either at the workplace that is directly associated with the analysis, or at a workplace that is highly similar. The primary source for getting this information is interviews; a secondary source may be field observations, or even an exchange of people between departments or units, since this will provide a set of fresh eyes. The discussion here will nevertheless limit itself to systematic data collection by interviews.

Before an interview it is important carefully to think through the situation and to consider how the information is going to be used. It is, as always, important to prepare well before going into ‘the field’, for instance by consulting available sources of information, such as rules and regulations, statistics for various types of events, known ‘worst cases’ or ‘worst scenarios’, stability of the workplace (rate of change of staff, equipment, procedures, organisation), and the commonly known history of major events or changes (preferably not limited to accidents) that have happened in the near past. This background information is the basis for defining the set of questions that should be asked during the interviews.

It is equally important to know as much as possible about the workplace itself, i.e., the actual physical and environmental conditions (or context) where work takes place. This information can be found by looking at architectural drawings (lay-out of the workplace), photos and videos, and other available types of information. The data collection / interview should also – if at all possible – take place at the actual place where the activity is carried out. A ‘guided tour’ of the premises is an additional source of valuable information that cannot easily be conveyed in any other form. Walking around to get a sense of what it is like to work in a particular setting is very useful both for asking questions and for interpreting answers. An interviewer will bring a pair of ‘fresh’ eyes to the setting and may notice things that the people who work there no longer see.

The goal of an interview is to find out how people do their work. This can be prompted by some simple questions such as:

  • When do you typically start the (specified) activity? What is it that ‘activates’ it?
  • Do you ever adjust or customize the activity to the situation? How? How do you determine which way to proceed?
  • What do you do if something unexpected happens? For example, an interruption, a new urgent task, an unexpected change of conditions, a resource that is missing, something that goes wrong, etc.
  • How stable are the working conditions? Is your work usually routine or does it require some - or much - improvisation?
  • How predictable is the work situation and the working conditions? How much do you generally prepare you for what may happen?
  • Is there something that you often have to tolerate or get used to during everyday work?
  • What preconditions for your work are usually fulfilled? Are these preconditions shared with all who take part in the work?
  • Are there any factors which you all take for granted during work?
  • How do you prepare for your work (e.g., reading documents, talking to colleagues, refreshing instructions, etc.)?
  • What data do you need? What kind of equipment, apparatus, or service features do you need? Do you usually assume that they will be available when needed?
  • What do you do in case of time pressure?
  • What do you do if information is missing, or if you cannot get hold of certain people?
  • What skills do you need?
  • What is the optimal way to perform your work? Is there an optimal or ‘best way’ to do it?
  • How often you change the way you work (rarely, often)?

It is also essential to prepare the people who are interviewed. First of all, they must of course agree to be interviewed. Once this agreement has been obtained, it is important that they are informed about what the purpose and nature of the data collection is. The general experience is that people are more than willing to tell about how they do their work, and how they manage tricky situations. It may be a good idea to interview two people at the same time, since they then often realise that one person may do things quite differently form another.

In addition to interviews – and field observations – some general techniques from organisational development may also be used. They all share the position that the questions we ask tend to focus the attention in a particular direction, a version of ‘what you look for is what you find’. Looking for how work is done, rather than for how something went wrong, will produce different types of information and potentially even change people’s mindset – to say nothing about the organisational culture. The search should be for how problems are solved rather than for which problems there are.

© Copyright Erik Hollnagel 2016. All Rights Reserved.