Shut Up and Let Me Think: The Dangers of Cognitive Overload

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By Phil La Duke

A good friend of mine and ex-colleague, Scott Studier, recently posted an article he had written for a publication on LinkedIn. The article was on cognitive overload, something that many and more of us are guilty—stuffing the proverbial 20lbs of meat sweepings into the five pound sausage casing. Okay, okay, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Cognitive overload is where you get either too much information or you get information to quickly to accurately process it.  When we hit cognitive overload we experience concentration fatigue and we are far more likely to make mistakes.

This subject is germane to safety in two ways: 1) we routinely develop courses that last eight hours long knowing full well that cognitive overload starts to set in at about the four hour mark, and 2) we are seeing longer and longer takt and cycle times.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term takt time is the length of time (originally in manufacturing) it takes to produce one product.  It has informally come to mean how long it takes to complete one job from start to finish, so for example the takt time for oil and gas would begin at the start of the drilling and end when the oil/gas is read for sale. Takt time can be applied to almost any industry.  Cycle time on the other hand, is the time it takes for one person to complete all the tasks on his or her job before it is passed down stream.

Time is money, and the longer a takt time the more costly it is to produce a product or deliver a service, so in the interest of productivity we want continually look for ways to shorten our takt time by eliminating waste. If we can reduce cycle time we typically (provided we just don’t move the work to someone else) have a corresponding reduction in takt time, and we become more profitable and faster.

Long cycle times are the result of one of the seven muda’s (I am convinced that the Japanese are slowly trying to teach us Japanese to make an invasion more efficient) or just plain too many tasks on a single job. Muda doesn’t just mean waste, it means futility, pointlessness. The seven forms of muda are:

    • Overproduction. You make too much and have to store it or it might go bad, it’s particularly bad if there is a change order or you just plain screwed up the batch.
    • Waiting. You ever see your tax dollars being wasted as a construction road crew is standing around? Well guess what? They aren’t just goofing off or on break, but generally waiting for someone or something usually materials or equipment to arrive. But we have no right to expect them to do that for nothing.
    • Transporting. Moving materials or people from point A to point B adds no value to the customer. Ever tried working on a plane? I’m too worried about getting choked out by a flight attendant trying to remove me from a plane to work. Rodney King didn’t take half the beating that some passengers are getting and I’m not taking any chances. I might read on a plane but the fact of the matter is you’re not gonna get much work out of me on a plane or in an airport.
    • Over Processing. Over processing is a step in the process that really isn’t necessary but you do it anyway because that’s what the SOP says to do. Pointless.
    • Unnecessary Inventory. Do you keep extra parts squirrelled away so you don’t run out. It cost money to hold inventory, if stuff isn’t moving through the system it’s wasting money.
    • Unnecessary / Excess Motion. Surprisingly this doesn’t refer to flash mobs that do elaborate dance numbers in the workplace (although I guess technically it could if that becomes a problem) rather, it’s the practice of setting up a work station that causes the worker to walk too much, bend over or awkwardly reach for a part. Motion doesn’t add value
    • Defects. Here I would include injuries. Your customer is not likely to pay you extra because you screwed up and produced below standard or injured a worker. In the view of the customer that’s your problem. I remember I had Lowes (a national US home improvement retailer) install a garage door which they did so poorly and the key broke off in the lock. Neither Lowes nor Pella (the door manufacturer) really cared too much they off-loaded all the blame on the husband & wife and presumably brother & sister who owned the half-assed door installation. When I insisted they send someone out to at very least unlock my garage door the Husband/Brother got indignant and said, “my guy broke his back installing a door, so what do you expect me to do?” I said, and in the interest of decorum I will sanitize this: “I don’t care if you killed a guy, in fact, I hope he sues your ass off. But until he does get your lazy, inbred ass out here and fix my door.” After three weeks of hassling with them I finally got the door unlocked but now cannot lock it. Don’t worry I have three angry badgers trapped in there so I worry more about the safety of a burglar than of being burgled. Moral: Don’t buy from Lowes or Pella.

All of these in and of themselves have the potential to cause injury, but cognitive overload is a BIG waste and in safety is potentially dangerous. Consider shadow training.  We have a slap-dash demonstration of the 86 tasks associated with a specific job and we wonder why people miss a step and get hurt.  Our solutions are as elegant as they are dopey. We sponsor a children’s poster contest. We offer pizza parties. We write people up for not getting it right.  We do everything but redesign the job to eliminate waste.

Cognitive overload is a big problem that is getting bigger. The people we hire aren’t any dumber than the ones we used to hire, but you can’t add more and more tasks onto a job and expect that nothing will break.

So what do we do about it? Well in addition to teaching engineers about designing using the engineering controls we need to teach them to reduce both takt and cycle time. If they do, we can have a faster, more nimble, cheaper, more efficient and most of all safer workplace.