The term ‘human factors’ is not confined to one single area of scientific study but covers a range of diverse disciplines and applied to improve the efficiency of operation and the reduction of human error leading to accidents. The knowledge, concepts, models and theories are derived mainly from human science disciplines such as psychology, physiology, medicine, anthropometry and others.
None of the existing recognised disciplines can of themselves account for the full range of current knowledge about how and why humans function the way we do. As a result, the process of trying to consider human performance as a subject in its own right has necessitated a new term. The term generally used is ‘human factors’.
Human factors are used to cover a broad number of functions that study people’s performance in their work and non-work environments. It can mean many things to many people and trying to understand all its implications can be daunting. Often the term is used following human error or critical incidents of some type and so it is easy to think of it negatively. However, human factors also include all the positive aspects of human performance: the unique things human beings do well.
The primary focus of any human factors initiative is to improve safety and efficiency by reducing and managing human error. Human factors are about understanding humans – our behaviour and performance. Then, from an operational perspective, human factors knowledge is applied to optimise the fit between people and the systems in which they work to improve safety and performance.
Why considering human factors is useful
Everyone is working with greater uncertainty, ambiguity and change than ever before. Human factors help employees and leaders to improve their effectiveness and sustain their efforts.
Developing a greater understanding of human factors won’t stop bad or stressful things from happening, but can reduce the level of disruption caused by errors and the time taken to recover.
Human factors have been embraced by service industries where human error can lead to serious events that can result in the loss of life. These industries include aviation, heavy engineering, energy generation, oil and gas, and health service.
The systems within these industries are dynamic: competing efficiency targets, financial pressures, high labour turnover and conflicting initiatives all create ideal preconditions for errors to occur at any time.
The last few decades have seen improvements and thus a reduction in critical events in a number of areas through assessments of human factors. This has been focused mainly on equipment and system reviews.
In analysing critical errors, the focus is more often on what happened instead of why it happened.
When human factors become useful
Human factors are useful in more complex system issues, such as the influence of culture, non-technical skills and the behaviours of senior staff. Creating a culture where behavioural change is put into practice through openness to learning and the willingness to acknowledge lessons learned is still far from being the norm in many organisations.
Consideration should be given to how human memory and attention mechanisms work, how humans process information from their environment and how human performance is influenced by environmental and situational factors, such as distractions and interruptions.
These are acknowledged but often overlooked, in favour of more easily quantifiable and measurable systems, such as investigating and analysing incidents, conducting system reviews, developing root cause analysis tools, implementing safety management systems, and enhancing risk management and reporting systems.
The principles of emotional intelligence and social intelligence are the core components of non-technical skills – the soft skills – involved in human factors.
Behaviour in business that drives the building of successful and powerful relationships is underpinned by:
- Situation awareness
- Team-based cooperation and coordination
- Decision making
- Managing fatigue and stress
The benefits of human factors
- helps to retain a focus on what matters and supports effective behaviour
- uses situational awareness to help with anticipating varying circumstance by gathering information, recognising context and understanding intent
- improves planning and preparation to provide and maintain standards
- helps to identify and address barriers to communication
- improves communication by exchanging information clearly and concisely, acting assertively, empathetic listening, and coordinating others
- reduces conflict and supports others
- helps to maintain objectivity and make authentic, quality decisions
- leads to better psychological well-being and health
- develops resilience – coping strategies and managing stress to maintain fitness for duty
- encourages team-based cooperation and coordination
- grows leadership capabilities, including coaching
A more focused approach on the non-technical skills in human factors considers recent advances in psychology, physiology and neuroscience and looking at how these can be applied to behaviour and to improve performance in the workplace. They are the cognitive, social and personal resource skills that complement technical skills, and contribute to safe and efficient task delivery.
Non-technical skills have not traditionally been a core part of the education system and curricula in apprenticeships, technical training, medical schools or academia. Rather they are expected to be picked up and learned on the job.
The human factors-based training focused around emotional and social intelligence skills, together with their practical application in the real world, can change this.
What are the non-technical skills of human factors?
The aim of human factors is to interface the best characteristics of people (behaviour, competencies, training) with the best characteristics of systems (equipment, procedures, processes) design and construction, maintenance, management and operation, with a view to eliminating or at least reducing errors in operation.
There are many books that cover ergonomics and the systems-based approach of human factors but very few that look at the non-technical aspects of emotional and social intelligence involved in human factors that lead to developing successful and powerful relationships.
Adapted from “The Authority Guide to Behaviour in Business; How to Inspire Others and Build Successful Relationships” available in paperback and Kindle versions – published November 2017.
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