When to build a job aid: watch out for obstacles

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series When to Build a Job Aid.

The first two parts of this series, in one line each:

  • Is a job aid mandatory? If not, does speed or rate on the job prohibit the use of a job aid?
  • Do the characteristics of the task tell you that a job aid makes sense?

If they do, you might feel ready to leap right into design.  But in the real world, people don’t just perform a task; they work within a complex environment.  So the third part of your decision is to ask if any obstacles in that environment will hamper the use of a job aid.

Part 3: what obstacles does your job aid need to overcome?

You could ask these question in either order, but physical barriers are sometimes easier to address than social ones.

Often people have to work in settings where a job aid might be a hindrance or even a danger.  Someone repairing high-tension electrical lines, for example.  Or someone assembling or disassembling freight trains at a classification yard:

You don’t need to watch this video about humping railroad cars, but as the narrator points out around the 4:00 mark, in the distant past a worker would have to ride each car as gravity moved it down a manmade hill (the hump), applying the brake by hand if the car was moving faster than about 4 mph. It would have been impossible to give the brakeman a job aid for slowing the car, so his training (formal or otherwise) would have required lots of practice and feedback about judging speed.  And possible trial and error.

Amarillo by morning?
Texas highway map, 1936

Rather than develop impractical job aids for aspects of this set of tasks, modern railroads rely on computers to perform many of them.  For example, radar monitors the speed of cars more accurately than a person could, and trackside retarders act to moderate that speed.

Remember, the goal is not to use job aids; the goal is to produce better on-the-job results.  Sometimes you can do that by assigning difficult or repetitive tasks to machinery and automation.

In many cases, though, you can overcome physical obstacles to the use of a job aid  by changing its form.  No law requires a job aid to be on an 8 1/2 by 11 inch laminated piece of paper. Nor on the formerly ubiquitous, multifolded paper of a highway map.

A road map can support different kinds of tasks.  You can use it at a table to plan where you’re going to go, to learn about the routes.  No barriers to such use.  But for a person who’s driving alone, a paper road map is at best a sub-optimal support.  It’s hard to use the map while trying to drive through an unfamiliar area.

In a quarter mile, turn left
Deep in the heart of Oslo

Real-time support for the driver now includes geosynchronous satellites, wireless technology, a constantly updated computer display–and a voice.

That voice is transformative: it’s a job aid you don’t have to read. Because the GPS gives timely, audible directions, there’s no need to take your eyes off the road and decipher the screen.

Other examples of overcoming physical barriers: attach the job aid to equipment. Use visual cues, like a change of color as movement or adjustment gets closer to specification.  Combine audio with voice-response technology (“If the relay is intact, say ‘okay.’ If the relay is damaged, say ‘damaged.'”)

But he had to look it up!

Overcoming physical barriers is one thing.  Overcoming social barriers is…a whole bunch of things. Your job aid will fail if the intended performer won’t use it.

Popular culture places a great value on appearing to know things.  When someone turns to an external reference, we sometimes have an irrational feeling that she doesn’t know what she’s doing–and that she should.  In part, I think we’re mistaking retention of isolated facts with deep knowledge, and we think (reasonably enough) that deep knowledge is good.

Don't go off on the wrong track.At its worst, though, this becomes the workplace equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. A railroading example might be someone who can tell you not only the train numbers but the locomotive numbers that ran on a certain line decades ago–but who can’t issue you a ticket in a prompt, accurate, courteous manner.

The performer herself may be the person believing that performance guided by a job aid is somehow inferior.  Coworkers may hold it, putting pressure on the individual.  Even clients or other stakeholders may prefer not to see the performer using a job aid.

Maybe there’s a way around this bias.  The job aid could be embedded in a tool or application, such that the performer is merely applying one feature.  That’s essentially what a software wizard does.  Watch me turn this data into a chart–I just choose what I want as I go along.

(And doesn’t “choose what I want” sound much more on top of things than “look stuff up?”)

For a injection gun used for immunizations in third-world settings, healthcare workers occasionally had to make adjustments to clear jams and similar equipment glitches.  Some senior workers did not want to seem to need outside help to maintain their equipment, but couldn’t retain all the steps.  (Remember in Part 2?  Number of steps in task, complexity of steps?)  So the clearing instructions were attached to the equipment in such a way that the worker could follow the job aid while clearing the gun.

♦ ♦ ♦

The considerations here aren’t meant as either exhaustive or exclusive.  They are, however, important stops to make, a kind of reality check before you hit the on-ramp to job aid design.  The reason for building a job aid is to guide performance on the job while reducing the need for memorization, in order to achieve a worthwhile result.  If the performer can’t use it because of physical obstacles, or won’t use it because of social ones, the result will be… no result.


CC-licensed photos:
1936 Texas highway map by Justin Cozart.
Norwegian GPS by Stig Andersen.
1879 Michigan Central RR timetable from the David Rumsey Map Collection.

In this series...<< Previous post