Confusing Controls

by Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

In the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, Rocket Raccoon is desperately trying to make sure that Baby Groot detonates a nuclear device correctly. If Baby Groot is successful, he just might help save the galaxy once again. If he fails, all could be lost. Confusing controls however are dramatically raising the likelihood of Groot error. (Here’s the YouTube clip)

My mistaking proofing and TapRooT® root cause analysis skills helped me spot the root causes of this potential problem quite quickly. Baby Groot was getting the immediate detonation button confused with the delayed detonation button, partially because of poor control design. Rocket tried to use safeguards to help prevent such an error. He asked Baby Groot to repeat back the detonation steps, multiple times, with little success. He asked for tape to cover the button that should not be pushed, but none was available. Will Baby Groot be able to help save the galaxy?

The Risk of Confusing Controls

We shouldn’t blame little Groot however if a mistake is made and the galaxy is destroyed. Both buttons were red, circular, and next to each other. Additionally, they weren’t labeled. The left button should have had a protective cover given its associated risk. Any of us could make the mistake of pushing the wrong button in such a stressful situation. In fact, errors related to similar design flaws happen more often than we know.

Have you ever turned on the wrong lights by flicking the wrong light switch? Have you ever turned on the wipers instead of the lights in your car? Confusing controls are often at the root of human errors related to equipment operation. Turning on the wrong lights in your house might not have that significant of a downside, but what could happen if we push the wrong button on a bridge crane pendant? Have you ever seen something bad happen because an emergency shutoff device was pushed by mistake?

LEARN MORE: Evaluating Root Cause Analysis Processes

The Link Between Confusing Controls and Human Error

We often rely on proprioception to operate controls. In other words, we often rely on our neural networks and muscle memories as we reach for a lever, switch, or knob. We do this because our eyes are busy watching the load being moved or the traffic on the road (and hopefully not the text messages on our phones). After all, we have done such tasks so often that we know where the right control to activate is located without having to look … don’t we?

I have reviewed incidents where bridge crane operators drop loads instead of laterally moving them. A waste truck driver raised his truck box into a bridge deck, instead of opening a door on the box, due partially to poorly designed controls. In each case, control shape, location, and labeling were among the list of root causes identified. It is also common to have one human being required to operate a variety of control setups without the benefit of standardization.

EXPLORE MORE: How Do You Find Root Causes?

Proactively Minimize Confusing Controls

No spoiler alert is needed here. I won’t tell you if Baby Groot is successful or not. You will have to watch the movie to find out if the Guardians will have a third chance to save the galaxy or not. I will encourage you however to proactively look for opportunities to make the controls in your workplace less confusing. Shape coding, improved labeling, control covers, and control layout enhancements are all ways to help keep humans from making such errors. Standardizing control designs across similar, but not identical, equipment also helps.

Books such as “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman  and the TapRooT® Corrective Action Helper also contain many examples of ways to improve control design, and in turn, reduce the potential for human error. Learning to look for root causes beyond simple human error is another great place to start. We all get confused by control designs at one time or another, just like a stressed out Baby Groot.

I am Groot (keep improving)!

Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy my newest book entitled “Error Proof – How to Stop Daily Goofs for Good.” Also, I would welcome the chance to socially connect with you.