Fallacy of human error

This article was published today on Bywater’s site

As professionals with responsibility for developing management systems and for auditing them we often come across instances where the service delivered isn’t what it should have been or we have problems with product quality. As good professionals we investigate and identify root cause as ‘human error’. How real is this and how can we deal with these errors and stop them from hurting us?

Firstly, it is too easy to come up with human error as a root cause for failure – so much so that some customer industries including automotive will not accept it as being a final cause for a supplier failure, the logic being: people only make mistakes because they are allowed to!

To understand real root cause you need to understand the nature of errors – often impossible in the heat of a customer complaint. People do make mistakes – rarely will you find an example of someone deliberately delivering a poor product or service – but there is normally a good reason why a mistake was made. An individual may be distracted or under pressure to keep up with delivery schedules. Process documents may be unclear or authority levels not sufficiently defined.

To resolve these issues needs further investigation and to do this you will have to have the confidence of the people involved. The area is huge and is a minefield. As with all complex systems to be able to understand how errors occur you need to look at a range of different aspects:

  • Leadership – how do your organisation’s leaders exemplify desired behaviours and the importance of satisfying customer requirements so people understand what is required of them?

  • Communications – how do you communicate organisation expectations, including customer requirements; how well do you listen to what employees are telling you about their jobs?

  • Competence – how do individuals within your system demonstrate they have the skills and knowledge required to do the job?

  • Empowerment – how are people authorized to develop and manage areas of their work?

  • Recognition – how are people’s efforts appreciated and good practice rewarded?

If you are able to answer the above questions satisfactorily then you will be a long way towards establishing a quality culture that seeks out and eliminates root causes currently undiscovered and assigned to human error. There is guidance available from ISO TC 176 on people aspects of management systems, a vital area and often neglected, in the form of ISO 10015 and ISO 10018 and they are both being revised as we speak. There are some great examples around of earlier work including quality circles and the more recent self directed work teams at the heart of Lean manufacturing and service.

W. Edwards Deming said that 85% of all quality problems are management problems – if you accept this then you are part way to accepting there is no such thing as human error.

Shabby operators

Another holiday, another example of a #shabbyoperator. In this case it is car hire company @Europcar and their franchisee – @interrent_ES, operating out of Palma airport on the beautiful island of Majorca. It’s the usual story of picking up a hire car and needing to run round it with a fine tooth comb and I confess I missed this mark.

Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t look too much like damage to me. I’m insured so it won’t end up costing me but to hear the agent tell me that it is around 350 Euro to repair makes me fume. If only I’d seen the Telegraph article before booking this car I’d have been very wary.

Investigating further and it appears that it is corporate culture that drives this behaviour from agents on the ground. With a Europcar insider revealing that agents are being rewarded for identifying damage as one measure for team effectiveness, a far cry from the ‘we’re not interested in anything under 5 cm’ you are told when picking a car up.

The Competitions and Markets Authority carried out a review of the UK car rental sector in 2014 – published in 2015 and it seems there is no progress despite assurances from the Big Six that they would improve their post return practices. Below is a quote from the CMA report linked above:

‘We have concerns that, where damage matrices are used, it may not necessarily be transparent to the consumer on what basis they have been charged and how the amount has been quantified. This could enable car hire companies to recover excessive repair charges unless the matrices represent a genuine pre-estimate of the loss to the rental company, for example in circumstances where separate, minor damage to a part is caused by two different consumers (who are both charged for the damage) but the part is only repaired once.’

Question is: ‘Do you trust your car hire company to be honest with you?’

My answer, as far as Europcar is concerned, is a big, fat ‘No’.

July 2017




A lot has been posted over the years about quality management and the benefits to you and I, the consumer. How can it be in the 21st century consumers are faced with appalling service and service suppliers who reach for Terms and Conditions rather than investigate and resolve quality failings?

Two current battles ongoing are with @lastminute_com and @wizzair. Two travel industry companies destined to miserable failure because they have lost sight of the travellers they serve. Questionable business practices and a complete lack of empathy characterise these two #shabbyoperators.