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Procedures and Human Error: Why Is It That People Don’t Follow Them?

Procedures are rules, and we create rules when we don’t trust that people will do the right thing on their own. Standard operating procedures, better known as SOP’s, are necessary not because they are regulated; they are regulated because they are crucial in every operation.

Every organization requires a procedure whether their existence is “inspired” by a regulation or because you want to have a flawless, uniform, and reliable operation. Therefore, every responsible organization has to have, not only well-established procedures, but they can develop processes that can aid in the avoidance of human error.

Many types of errors can be avoided by implementing strategically designed procedures. Let’s look at some of them:

1. Intentional errors: These are related to failures in judgment and inferential process but never with the intention to harm. When there is harm intended action, is known as sabotage, and this one is not an error unless you plan it and fail to succeed. But if that malicious act results as expected there is no error to address. There’s more than meets the eye and we will discuss further.

2. Unintentional errors: These refer to those errors that happen, and we are not aware nor conscious of their occurrence. Think to leave your keys inside a locked car, you did not want that to happen, and you can’t explain why it happened. After all, we all know that we must be “careful,” but that does not prevent it from occurring.

Now, why is it that this happens? What causes people not to follow procedures?

The first thing is that people fail to follow the rules when the rules don’t make sense to them. When people understand why they do what they do, the way they do it, there is a higher chance for their right implementation. Of course, there are other reasons. Nevertheless, the following tend to be the ones that made the main list:

1. Enforce their use. Rules are only useful as long as they are applied. And procedures are useless if they are not followed. Most of the time we create rules but fail to enforce compliance (not using the procedures). This, in turn, sends a message that it is “allowed” to work from memory. This then tends to become the acceptable unspoken practice.

2. Procedures need to be correct, complete, and easy to follow. In other words, “human engineered.” Procedures need to be developed with the human in mind. How we read, how we process data, type of language, and verbiage. Rules for writing procedures to avoid human error are essential. Of course, as long as they are used.

3. Have an appropriate format. It does not matter if your procedure is pretty and colorful if the information that it contains is not accurate. So, if your content is correct, a proper format can increase the reliability of performance by 50%. But if your content is inaccurate, we don’t care about the format.

4. Include the why’s. If I don’t understand the science behind it, the reasons for particular activities that could be perceived as “unnecessary” there is a higher chance for mistakes, bad decisions and then defects. It is important to explicitly present warnings and dangers for both safety and quality. The knowledge of possible adverse consequences control behavior and allow for self-regulation. People do want to do a correct job.

5. Procedures need to be available and easy to find. Whether you use electronic or paper-based procedures, these need to be at hand. Binders, shared workstations, and location can make it challenging to retrieve the document and people might decide it’s not worth the effort. If I need to do 30 clicks, most likely would be perceived as a delay in the process; and remember we all want to work faster.

As you can see, there is a lot more than meets the eye when we talk about human error and procedures. From perception, motivation, and enforcement, all of them must be considered.

For more information about our SOP’s development and implementation services that will help you, not only prevent but reduce human error, email us at