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The Human Factor

Predicting the unpredictable

By Mike Jarrett

The structure which houses a business is fairly predictable. By observation or by physical tests and computer models, it is possible to know how a building will react in various situations. The same is true for most other physical facilities which support the means by which a business generates an income, be they fuel tanks or perimeter fences.

Machines and systems present a little more difficulty. It is possible, through manufacturers’ specifications and strict maintenance schedules, to predict performance levels and durability of equipment. However, a multiplicity of variables can make such a prediction challenging. So whereas the manufacturer of your car may state the expected lifespan of a gasket or a joint, not all cars of the same make have the same problems at exactly the same time. Identical timing belts on two identical motors, running at the same speed for the same duration of time, are not likely to shred and break apart in the same moment or in the same manner … but they could!! It is difficult to predict performance and durability of machines, but hardly impossible. Indeed, technologies now exist to make accurate prediction more likely.

Not so with human beings. No technology (or research method, for that matter) exists to accurately predict the behaviour of people. There is always a margin of error. The fact that we make decisions according to our needs and perceptions in a given moment makes human beings generally unpredictable. Some of my preferences today, for example, may be different to those I had yesterday, for any number of reasons. Habits and preferences may provide hints at what a person is likely to say, do or even decide, but ‘hint’ is as far as it goes. There is no guarantee that I’ll do today what I did last week or even yesterday. 

I like chicken but today I feel for steak. So, I order steak but when it arrives I’ve changed my mind. I eat it but I would have preferred the fish my wife ordered.

Sooner or later, we experience situations in which anticipated behaviour simply did not happen, even with persons we know very well. Parents may relate to this immediately; for that matter, so will husbands and wives. But trying to predict the behaviour and responses of family members or people we know well is far easier than predicting that of members of a workforce or even a small group of employees, individually or collectively. 

Hope and wishes

Corporate planning demands that company directors know and understand how each element of the business will perform and what specific results to expect. Without this knowledge, planning becomes futile and the objectives set are nothing more than hope and wishes.

Significant resources and large percentages of business costs are directly related to the human factor. In addition to salaries and benefits, staff support (in terms of equipment, facilities and statutory obligations) costs a lot. Against that level of expenditure, ignorance about how the human factor will perform is reckless.

The inability to predict human behaviour (versus the need to know how humans will behave) poses a dilemma but is not unique to commerce. Military establishments – an army, for example – must resolve this dilemma in order to function. How do they do it? How do they get a vastly diverse mix of humans to behave according to plan, even under frightening, life-threatening circumstances? 

The answer lies in a single word – training. Not only does an army maintain strict training procedures; it reinforces that training on frequent and regular schedules. The stakes are high, so the army needs to have each soldier achieve excellence in each task assigned. Training on the shooting range is not something done once during recruit training. It is on-going. Maintaining skill levels at predetermined standards is the only way to ensure that the human factor delivers according to plan. The converse is true. Performance output can only be accurately predicted if the persons and skills employed are each delivering exactly what is expected; and if all those skills – often performed by people of various languages, cultures and customs – are in harmony.

If a company sets precise standards of excellence for individual tasks and processes – whether storing or stowing cargo or recording data – it is better able to predict performance outcome. If that company adheres to those standards of excellence, it is certainly more likely to meet its obligations and please its clients and customers. Clearly understood and implemented standards of ‘excellence’ make it possible to predict outcome. Machine operators can extend the life of equipment because they have their knowledge of the system, its full capabilities and its limitations. Managers can be trained to identify inefficiencies, troubleshoot and correct in time. If, over time, all perform every aspect of their job conscientiously and effectively with no errors or shortfall, the outcome can eventually be predicted accurately.

Excellence is achievable

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The words, credited to the Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle (384 to 322 BC), make the case. Excellence is achievable by training.

Aristotle, bless his soul, makes another worthwhile observation when he addresses training and education. He posits the human spirit as fundamental to the process.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is not education at all.”

By our own experience we are able to come to the same conclusion as Aristotle. Training should therefore include modules for engaging the human spirit. It should generate empathy, enthusiasm, loyalty and a sense of cooperative interaction on both sides and indeed at all levels of staff. These human responses, which collectively define the ‘human spirit’, create readiness for learning about production systems or methods.

Most important

The human factor, arguably the most important component in business is, ironically, the most difficult to predict. However, if employers adopted and, without resorting to alienating draconian methods, insisted on high standards of excellence, predicting results becomes more precise.

Excellence is achievable through training and habit. Habit is the child of repetition. However, little will be achieved from teaching ‘how to do’ without engaging the human spirit. Employers should therefore look at training as a continuing process in which participants are individually and collectively inspired to a sense of loyalty, empathy and enthusiasm. Only then can training in systems and methods bring improved results.  

* Mike Jarrett is a Corporate Communications Consultant and Founding Editor of Caribbean Maritime.