comment 0

Paying Attention to the Forgotten Human Factor – Updated


Process improvement often focuses on easily measured metrics: the time required to complete a task, error rates, transactions per time period. Six Sigma projects in IT often focus on easily quantified bottlenecks like bandwidth, uptime, and the utilization rate of humans. Yet there is an equally crucial bottleneck that is rarely realized: human attention.


People have a limited amount of attention as they have a limited amount of time on the job. And as with time, there are many things vying for that attention. Some distracters that take away user or computer operator attention can be handled via human resources: noise canceling headphones to reduce noise distractions, privacy screens to reduce wandering conversations, abandoning the open office concept that dumps people into a perpetually distracting environment. This gives users more time and attention to put into the software applications they are using. Yet those software applications themselves may be adding to the attention disruptions they suffer.


Statements like “Just add a pop up when they should see the error” or “Oh, give them a notice when the transaction is complete” are easy to say and almost as easy to implement. If the user had only that one application running when the error appeared, it would get the attention it deserved. Now jump into reality. The user has logged on and started bringing up the four to six applications they often use simultaneously. Virus software updates pop up immediately. A couple of IMs shouting for someone to do something appear. Maybe a junk pop-up message from your browser. Add in periodic login prompts, information only notices, and true error messages, and the high priority pop-up notice gets closed along with 20 other lesser notices. Users respond to the deluge by glancing at – or not even looking at – all the messages before closing them all.


Problems resulting from so many attention disrupting messages include:

  • Errors not getting noticed, and thus not getting resolved
  • Wasted time by users closing informational messages they don’t need
  • Distraction from their primary tasks as they attempt to evaluate the actions necessary from so many information sources
  • Interruption of their primary tasks from non-value added messages, which in turn increases their error rates


How then can IT deal with these attacks on the efficient use of human attention? There are several possible solutions:


  • Don’t use pop-up notices to inform users of completed transactions and other minor informational messages. Put the message clearly on the screen instead.
  • If the error is important, have the error come up on large text on the application or browser screen. More importantly, don’t let the user complete the transaction until the error is resolved. If the error is a pop-up which can be closed, the odds increase that the pop-up will be ignored or closed without corrective action. If it is a critical error, don’t let them proceed. Design the applications so that users cannot close a pop-up in habit and then not understand why they cannot continue to the next step.
  • If applications require frequent updating, either schedule the updates for non-user time or push out updates without user notification. They should not have their attention taken away for things they either have no control of or do not care about.
  • Discourage IM in place of human communication when someone is doing something important. If it isn’t important enough to warrant calling or visiting the person, then it probably isn’t worth bothering the person in the first place – and thus a needless distraction. The rare exception is instant messaging someone to notify them of a serious problem, but too many use IM to create digital equivalents of dropping by to chat while the instinctive response of the younger generation is to reply, even if disrupting an important task to say “I’m busy”, not realizing this in and of itself increases the odds they’ll make a mistake.
  • Design software from the beginning to minimize the number of pop-ups and notices receive in the first place. Save disruptive notifications for high priority issues so that they get the attention they deserve.


Software applications and environments should factor in that most underappreciated yet so critical bottleneck – human attention.

comment 1

3D Printing Does Not Make Industrial Engineering Obsolete – Here’s Why

I had a discussion with someone in which I mentioned my transition from industrial engineering to IT. The person asked me if I thought 3D printing would make the entire profession of industrial engineering obsolete. My short answer was no. Here is a longer answer as to why 3D printing doesn’t render IE obsolete.

  • Not everything can be 3D printed, and there are still products that can be printed that will remain mass produced due to economies of scale. For most facilities today and at least a plurality later, 3D printing will simply add to the mix, not replace it altogether.
  • IE expertise in ergonomics remains as relevant as ever, whether 3D printing toys, tools or prosthetics.
  • Project management continues its trend toward complexity as one relies on disparate experts for design, simulation, manufacturing and testing.
  • When 3D printing is done in revamped or brand new facilities, it is a shift toward job-shop style production with mass customization. That is a shift back toward small lots with a lot of variability but doesn’t make IE obsolete.
  • Quality control remains as important as ever, though automation of inspection becomes harder if not impossible due to the sheer variety one can 3D print.
  • Industrial engineering’s expansion into the service industry will remain unaffected by 3D printing. Demand for IE experts in logistics and supply chain planning will only grow as support for mass customization and production of unique items increases.
  • Industrial engineers in Human Resources will continue to see a decline in the number of unskilled laborers in favor of maximizing the efficiency of semi-skilled and skilled laborers. In short, far fewer low skill assemblers versus more mechanics, engineers and IT staff.
  • Risk management remains equally important and may become more important in an ever-changing world.
  • The demand for product modeling and process modeling by industrial and systems engineers is likely to increase, not decrease, as far more parts are made via 3D models and printed on 3D printers.
  • Likewise, data management, configuration management and requirements management become essential at every business, increasing demand for those who know how to use the supporting software and tools.
  • Data mining and user experience remain frontiers for industrial engineers. Data mining of process data for process improvements and quality initiatives is a particularly strong future area of growth for the profession.


Though I write science fiction based on trends I can see, I don’t expect this to be an all-inclusive list. What would you, the reader, add to this list?

comment 0

Work Simplification Versus Lean

If you are streamlining a user interface or IT process, is it work simplification or lean IT? Trying to answer this question, I found overlaps and differences between the two.


Where Lean and Work Simplification Overlap


To some, lean only means simplification of processes in an operation but not simplifying every motion and action completed at a work station. Lean should involve eliminating unnecessary steps in the production plan and operations as well as streamlining individual steps themselves.


Where Work Simplification and Lean Diverge


Work simplification can overlap with lean engineering, since you’re streamlining operations. However, lean includes eliminating waste, which doesn’t include work simplification. Work simplification, on the other hand, could involve simplifying every step of an assembly process but not reduce the number of steps in the process. And an industrial engineer focused work simplification may not worry about the delays waiting for new parts or improving the quality of the operation beyond mistake proofing.

Work simplification could result in processes so streamlined it leads to wasted idle time or problems upstream or downstream.




If you’re eliminating wasted steps and unnecessary actions, it could easily count as either lean process improvement or work simplification. Reducing waste for the facility itself is obviously lean. In other cases, where do you draw the line between work simplification and lean engineering? Please give your opinion in the comments.

The Problems with Task Based Performance Metrics in IT – Updated

Task based performance metrics, at their root level, measure someone’s performance based on quantity instead of quality. The attraction is the ease of counting the tasks completed, but there are problems caused by using this type of metric in IT.

What are the problems with task based performance metrics in IT?


It devalues harder tasks and tickets that required extra troubleshooting unless you alter the metrics to give extra weight to more complex tasks – or leads to creation of extra tickets for the extra work to get credit.


Alternatively, it creates segregation of first, second and third level technical support so that subject matter experts are held to a different standard than general tech support. It results in rote tasks to be completed more quickly by people who know less overall; this limits their ability to handle more complex matters and ones easily mistaken for something else properly.


Relying on the number of tickets as a measure of performance hurts customer service when it drives employees to close things as quickly as possible, though customers may need more handholding.


Teams may look at automating repetitive tasks to speed them up instead of simplifying, streamlining and improving the overall process so fewer tasks are needed.


The shift to task based metrics and segregation of first level support encourages development of troubleshooting scripts, as well as hiring lower skilled people for a call center to solve issues based on the script quickly. Service levels go down, while the same volume of tickets is closed more cheaply.


There is an incentive to send someone a how to document via a link and say you’re done, regardless of how little help it is for the customer. Hey, they called back, another ticket! Constantly resetting someone’s password becomes a positive experience for the help desk, a familiar task to complete as compared to taking 10 minutes more to find out why it is continually necessary.


Preventative maintenance is neglected in this type of environment when system administrators’ performance is tracked in this way. When it remains a priority to management, the goals focus on how many patches, how many servers or the time it took to complete, not necessarily the quality of the work.


When the number of software defects found in testing is the metric by which performance is measured, expect to see every little bug reported and even gaps in documentation listed as bugs to get the count up.


When the number of software test steps completed or the percentage complete is the metric, you can end up with focus on getting tests completed regardless of their importance to the critical functions of the software. “We ran through 50 reports without error. Sure that data import failed, but look how we’re 95% through!”