Reducing “Whoops!”

June 5, 2020
Mitigating human error in times of crisis using digital tools.

By Chris Turlica is CEO of MaintainX

If you’ve ever been in the bathroom of a fast-food restaurant right after the lunch rush, then you know what an operational error looks (and smells) like. Despite the well-meaning checklist pinned to the bathroom door, when the going gets rough front-line workers wind up scrambling to stay afloat—and overflowing toilets and broken soap dispensers simply get ignored.

MaintainX's Chris Turlica

During the coronavirus crisis, restaurant bathrooms aren’t seeing much use, but for manufacturers and many other businesses, the cost of unforced operational errors is higher than ever. The millions of Americans now hunkering down at home are dependent on the companies manufacturing everything from toilet paper to ventilators, producing and distributing food and medical supplies, keeping their lights on, and delivering the internet and communication services they need.

Firms that avoid operational errors will earn their customers’ enduring gratitude—and companies that mess up could do lasting damage to their brands.   

As those grubby restaurant bathrooms show, however, eliminating operational errors during chaotic times requires more than just good intentions and paper checklists. The companies on the front line of this crisis need new tools to help them eliminate mistakes and overcome challenges. What’s needed, in short, is a more flexible approach to managing operations: not just clipboards and checklists, but a standardized operational engine that can help businesses digitize workflows, innovate processes, and reduce costly operational errors.

Beating the dirty dozen

Don’t get me wrong: checklists will always be an important part of ensuring operational success. Most operational errors can be attributed to what we call the “dirty dozen”—human errors that include stress, fatigue, communication breakdowns, and the lack of institutional norms. In many settings, from aviation to healthcare, checklists are a vital part of overcoming such failure points and ensuring the job gets done right.

But paper checklists are passive; only as effective as the user’s own engagement and commitment. It’s easy for a clipboard dangling from the back of a door to become part of the scenery, with boxes checked off mechanically rather than used to drive an effective, rigorous process. In fact, a paper checklist can itself fall prey to the “dirty dozen” and simply be ignored by stressed or disengaged workers. 

That’s where a digital operational engine shines. Take exhaustion and stress—real problems for any organization operating during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s easy for people to tune out when they’re ticking boxes, or to make unforced errors when juggling stacks of paper. Using software, however, it’s possible to create a more interactive and engaging experience, employing alerts, messages and audiovisual or haptic reminders to keep workers on the top of their game.

Similarly, a good operational engine prevents breakdowns related to communication and information scarcity by enabling frontline workers to talk to one another, share insights and queries, and collaboratively solve novel problems.

Instead of relying on top-down communications such as informational posters and memos, organizations can start having real conversations, allowing workers to mentor and support one another in real time, and facilitating two-way information-sharing between managers and workers.

Surviving ‘black swan’ events

Such capabilities are especially important during "black swan" events like the coronavirus crisis. After all, documentation is only as flexible as its author’s imagination. If a machine breaks down and the manual explains how to repair it, then everything’s fine—but what if you’re dealing with a situation, like a pandemic, that isn’t covered in the manual?

A good operational engine overcomes such problems by letting frontline workers, managers, and institutional experts collaborate, innovate and implement solutions to novel challenges.

A standardized operational engine lets teams refine everyday processes, too. Apps allow users to communicate with each other and their managers in real time, giving feedback on flawed processes and suggesting improvements. By giving workers ownership of processes and systems, and responsibility for improving them, an operational engine boosts helps prevent checklist fatigue while also making workers feel valued and respected.

Besides engaging frontline workers, digital tools give managers and supervisors a bird’s-eye view of their company’s operational landscape, delivering real-time metrics to ensure problems are addressed before they become crises. With a digital platform, the information gathered by frontline crew-members as they check gauges or tap dials can be instantly collated, enabling big-data analysis to spot trends, make improvements, and identify new efficiencies.

Of course, any new system comes with a learning curve, and some workers (and, truth be told, some managers) are wary of newfangled approaches. But those same dissenters would complain if you rolled out a new edition of their paper checklists, too. With analog systems, you’d have no way to ensure compliance or to offer in-the-moment training and assistance to increase buy-in. Even skeptics, in other words, usually find that in the long run, there’s less to object to when you switch to a digital solution.

Survive & thrive

As any manager knows, operational success isn’t about enforcing rigid systems and procedures—it’s about creating the right operational system for any given moment, and evolving standardized responses to the challenges your organization faces. In the present moment, especially, companies need to be both nimble and resilient, and to build an operational infrastructure that allows them to deliver consistent outcomes, reconfigure workflows in real time, and eliminate costly operational errors.

After all, for virtually any organization, operations is where the rubber hits the road. Get it right, and you’ll succeed. Get it wrong, and you’ll be left with a messy situation that can all too easily erode customer confidence and spiral into a brand-destroying PR disaster.

That’s true at the best of times—but it’s truer than ever during moments of crisis.

As our economy emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, the companies that manage to operate near-flawlessly (even under extraordinary pressure) will be the ones best positioned to survive and thrive. For many firms, the path to success begins with saying goodbye to clipboards and paper checklists, and embracing the digital era.