Friday, February 28, 2014


In a previous post ( I mentioned an observation reported in the Harvard Business Review about 47 percent of people regularly having a wandering mind.  The point was made that distraction is a very common cause of work related error. 
This raises in my mind a variety of interesting avenues, such as, if half of people working in your laboratory are intermittently or regularly distracted, how do we ever get anything done on time and right the first time.  Crosby’s DIRFT must be an impossible dream.  

Well in some respects I think there is some truth here, but we are protected from most disasters because of our own systemic ingenuity and maybe a lot of luck.  James Reason of “Error Fame” points to what some call the Swiss cheese barriers that block most bad events from manifesting.  

We pick up on clues that tell us that what is about to happen is nonsense or wrong.  The name or check mark is not present, the color or shape is wrong, the whistle is blowing.  Something alerts us that something needs fixing.  His point is that for most inadvertent errors to occur you have to experience the uncommon (not uncommon enough!) combination of bad timing, wrong circumstance, bad luck, and absolute obliviousness.  Most causes get stopped; very few work their way through to an outcome or effect.  

But I turned to a book by Edward Hallowell, who writes on attention deficit disorder to see if he had any suggestions that might help the 95 percent of us that do not have ADD, but nonetheless have episodes of distraction that could mess things us. 
So in the spirit of Culture of Quality improvement and Distraction Abatement and Error Avoidance in the medical laboratory and with thanks to Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, I offer the following:

  • ·       Both excess quiet and excess noise make a laboratory a not nice place to work.  Often you hear people say they don’t hear all those cabinet fans and motors anymore, but they are wrong.  They do hear them and they drive your staff crazy.  Background music can be a problem because of the wide variety of personal choice.  Some folks actually can work better with a personal headset and an iPod.  Don’t be afraid to give it a try.

  • ·       We are all visual beings.  Bright colour is a good thing.  There is no reason that all laboratories have to be monochromatic white or cream or grey.


  • ·       If your technologists need to regularly work through computer screens, get rid of those old green/white or black/white eye sore monitors and make sure the software screens have enough pizazz to capture your staff’s interest and attention.

  • ·       Provide for lunch and learn open-talk sessions on strategies that help reduce distraction and error.

  • ·       Encourage staff to take a regular break, even for a few moments when they have been sitting at their bench for more than 30 minutes.  They should stop doing what you are doing, stand-up, stretch and breathe.  Then start again. 

  • ·       To the extent possible, require people to take their mid-morning and mid-afternoon and lunch breaks and use it for want they were intended. In my son’s work-site people have access to ping pong, to exercise equipment, to music, or to just sitting or taking a walk.  I haven’t seen than in many laboratories (although lots of places have group exercise) but that would be wonderful.  Note to laboratory managers, spend a little money and make sure that your staff has some comfortable chairs and sofas in their break room. 

  • ·       Enough with those conference chairs!!

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