Have Human Factors Slipped the Net?
In this article, BAE Systems have a steadfast approach - it's all about how people interface with their working environment. But recently, the FMA instilled Human Factor directives that were geared not for employees, but for the end users of the equipment they are manufacturing. Is this what Human Factors was intended to focus on? This is like an engineering company drawing up a HF strategy to ensure that its customers are familiar with the requirements of the brief - not what I understood HF to be created for.
The Health & Safety Executive describes it thus:
"Human factors refer to environmental, organisational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics, which influence behaviour at work in a way which can affect health and safety"
This definition includes three interrelated aspects that must be considered: the job, the individual and the organisation:
The job: including areas such as the nature of the task, workload, the working environment, the design of displays and controls, and the role of procedures. Tasks should be designed in accordance with ergonomic principles to take account of both human limitations and strengths. This includes matching the job to the physical and the mental strengths and limitations of people. Mental aspects would include perceptual, attentional and decision making requirements.
The individual: including his/her competence, skills, personality, attitude, and risk perception. Individual characteristics influence behaviour in complex ways. Some characteristics such as personality are fixed; others such as skills and attitudes may be changed or enhanced.
The organisation: including work patterns, the culture of the workplace, resources, communications, leadership and so on. Such factors are often overlooked during the design of jobs but have a significant influence on individual and group behaviour.
In other words, human factors is concerned with what people are being asked to do (the task and its characteristics), who is doing it (the individual and their competence) and where they are working (the organisation and its attributes), all of which are influenced by the wider societal concern, both local and national.
So the crux of HF, whilst encompassing culture and organisational attributes, is seen to be in the H&S field of application; the next question is, how far can this practicably be diluted? Where could threats come from to render a positive, productive trend into one that misses the mark completely? Do you include mental health in the mix? What about psychological welfare on the shop floor? How much more effective and focused are people going to be when they are confident, empowered and positive in outlook? My understanding of "human factors" is the holistic element of a company's operation affecting its performance and growth potential. When I see the words "human factors" I associate the term with communication, alignment and engagement. I'm thinking about how people perform in the workplace to their optimum capability. Am I wrong?
If the wider interpretation of HF dilutes its emphasis on welfare of the employee, and veers off into process-led systems of "operational improvement" that focus instead on products and instruction manuals, we will be faced with the same story as was told of CSR. Once upon a time, Corporate Social Responsibility was going to be a benchmark for best-practice in human integration, at the heart of the company's mission statement and set to benefit the community along with best=practice standards of service. But along came a wave of 6Sigma and Lean specialists insisting that investment was better placed with them, and CSR died in the minds of most CEOs against the temptation of quick profits by amendments to process and data capture. These days, most don't even know what 'CSR' stands for.
We'd do well to be alive to the possibility that once again, the human element of engineering and manufacturing could be in danger of being diverted away from its core mission, into territories that serve no-one particularly well and leave those common problems of attrition, resistance, silos and down-time to fester under the surface and threaten corporate health. We can't afford to bypass the central nervous system of organisational life - we have to safeguard those crucial key components of what's important to people and their personal equanimity.