November 2, 2011 | Barb Carr

Root Cause Analysis Tip: What is Multi-Tasking Costing You?

The Dangers of Multi-Tasking Revisited

Earlier this year, we shared some tips for multi-taskers in our Career Development Column. But recent psychological findings indicate that multi-tasking, more accurately called “task switching”, not only endangers your schedule and productivity, but can endanger lives.

Multitasking Cuts Productivity by 40%, Says APA

Psychologists compared the time it took participants to accomplish certain tasks on their own and after switching from another task. Participants lost time when switching tasks. The more complex or unfamiliar a task, the more time lost after switching.

Researchers found two stages in switching: During “Goal Shifting” we decide, “I will now do this and not that,” and in “Rule Activation” we decide, “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this.” We do this each time we switch tasks. But switching frequently, especially between complex or dangerous tasks, can cut up to 40% of productive time. Errors also skyrocket.

Tailor Your TapRooT® Investigation and Reduce Task Switching

Did you know that multitasking/task switching is covered in TapRooT®’s Root Cause Tree®? Look under Human Engineering: Complex System: Monitoring Too Many Items.

The Root Cause Tree® Dictionary notes that if someone is “required to monitor too many items or variables at one time, causing personnel to overlook or fail to notice needed information”, or if “a person ignore[d] displays or indications because they were concentrating on a single display when they were required to monitor too many display or indicators”  then this is likely an issue.

Are you wondering how many variables are too many? It depends on the job, the individual, and the circumstances. We suggest that 3 items at once is too many.

Lean on Expert Advice

Consider consulting a human factors expert if you find this to be a root cause or a generic cause in your company. This expert will be able to tell you what’s holding your human-machine interface back and give you ideas on how to fix it.

The Corrective Action Helper® Guide has a few suggestions as well, like revising the human-machine interface to make it easier to monitor–perhaps integrating controls into one panel.

Fatigue and Procedure Needs Improvement may also be root causes if your workplace struggles with the costs of task switching.

Multitasking or task switching is far more costly than we think. Make sure work conditions allow for focusing on one task at a time, and let the equipment work with your personnel not against them. Take a look at the American National Standard for Human Engineering of Visual Display Terminal Workstations for ideas on how to improve your human-machine interface.

If you’d like to learn more about attention and monitoring issues, attend our Stopping Human Error Pre-Summit Course next February.

Root Cause Analysis
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