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Giving Thought to Process

THE TRADITIONAL managerial reaction to addressing errors is to devise a new protocol and mandate more education and training. While that approach has its uses, it also has limitations.

Instead of trying to train people to memorize increasing numbers of procedures to improve their performance, managers should look for other ways to facilitate workers’ achievement of their goals. Focal points for this type of initiative include system interfaces, jobs and tasks, and training.

System Interfaces

Good interface design always starts with the goals of the users. Managers should look for opportunities to improve system interfaces so that they support what people are trying to accomplish. Fire emergencies in buildings are a good example. Buildings have multiple staircases so that people have alternatives if one stairway is blocked by fire or fire department operations. But the codes do not require that the building systems have a way of directing occupants to the safest stairway in an emergency.

The design solution is straightforward: The company can use smoke detectors connected to signs to tell occupants which stairs are unsafe. The newly constructed World Trade Center Building Seven uses this approach, but to my knowledge, it is the only facility to do so.

Another example of good system interface design is the sensible allocation of tasks between computers and people. Each is inherently good at some tasks and poor at others. For example, people are inherently poor at sustaining vigilance over extended periods of time. You can select people who are naturally a little better at this task than others, but training people to be more vigilant will have little effect. However, computers can keep watch endlessly, and due to recent technological innovations, they can alert people to unusual circumstances.

While lousy at vigilance tasks, people are inherently better than computers at discerning the meaning of situations. Once alerted by the computer, they can make better judgments about whether the observed behaviors warrant further investigation. In this way, people and computers work as a team that far exceeds the abilities of either in identifying and understanding potential threats.

Another example of system interfaces are the forms that employees use for record keeping. Craig Kelly is a security consultant in the New York City area who says that managers with police backgrounds often create report forms that are patterned after the forms that they filled out in their public-safety days.

These forms tend to be jargon-laden and confusing to many security officers. Even the titles can be misleading. An “injury report” may be used to describe how someone was injured on the premises, but it cannot be used if the security officer suffers the injury. The confusion can cause incidents to be misreported.

More training may fix the problem, but the more efficient approach is to just fix the forms. Something as simple as renaming forms to “injury to others” and “injury to self” can solve the problem.

To test the usefulness of your own forms, you should ask disinterested third parties to fill out the form and explain what they are thinking. If they hesitate, you can ask, “What are you thinking about?” You will be surprised how many items are confusing and imprecise. Change the form and retest it until the language is clear and concise.

Jobs and Tasks

In many situations, employees make mistakes because their jobs are not well designed. For example, Harvey Molotch and Noah McClain, anthropological researchers at New York University, found that transit employees’ jobs were set up such that the only time they had to fill out paperwork to report an incident was to stay past the end of their shifts. Not surprisingly, they chose not to report incidents. In this case, the job needed to be redesigned so that workers would have enough time to complete paperwork during their paid hours or so that they could receive extra compensation.


Training is among the most important tools for getting employees to perform optimally in all situations. But the key is to train staff broadly to understand goals and constraints, rather than training them narrowly to follow sets of procedures without thinking. The broader training approach plays to the strengths of human psychology.

Researchers investigating how people make decisions in real-world settings have discovered that the most successful employees don’t develop and memorize procedures. Instead, they learn to recognize situations and to adapt their responses as appropriate to achieve their objectives.

For example, on rare occasions, a security officer may encounter someone who is mentally ill. Officers should be trained to recognize the situation and understand their goals and constraints. In this case, they should recognize the individual’s auditory hallucinations and paranoia and pursue the goals of diverting the threat and seeking appropriate help for the person. The officers should also understand the constraints in this situation and refrain from arguing, coercing, or crowding the person.

The well-trained officer can adapt his or her response to how the mentally ill person is behaving in the given situation. Having a rigid step-by-step set of procedures for dealing with a mentally ill person likely wouldn’t work as well and wouldn’t be remembered on the rare occasion when it is needed.

Every organization will encounter its share of errors. But managers should resist the temptation to write new procedures for every mistake. Security departments should instead make sure that systems, forms, and jobs are well designed and that officers are taught to think on their feet.

Norman Groner is an associate professor and director of the protection management program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.