Which Human Performance Tools aren’t Human Performance Tools?

question_markWhat am I talking about? Two tools that are commonly referred to in our world of Human Performance Improvement (HPI) to prevent human error are called “Questioning Attitude” and “Stop When Unsure.” I’m challenging you to not consider these as tools in your arsenal against preventing events caused by human error. I have my reasons… keep reading…and find the secret to why Human Performance Tools work so well in the first place.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I was recently (and thankfully) reminded by my PPI buddy, Tim Autrey, that the people we are trying to influence do not need to know about the science behind why the (HPI) tools work, just that they do. I agree and like to simplify and keep concepts easy and tangible, as Tim also advises. With this in mind, how many Human Performance Tools does your program have? Is it simple and easy to explain? Keep it simple, right? A program that is supposed to help workers should not be difficult to remember or employ.

I previously worked with an organization that had many tools and kept them under two headings, “Fundamental” and “Conditional.” Fundamental tools would be used all of the time, like Self-Checking, where conditional tools would be only used given a certain situation like a Post-Job Critique. This created quite a list and more for workers to remember, so job aids were created (pamphlets and badge cards). Confusion set in on whether or not the requirements for workers and management to constantly have their books or badge cards with them to show they are supporting the program. Too many tools causes confusion, as well…


I’ve also joined an organization where the previous Human Performance training indicated to “use all the Human Performance Tools every day, every job, every minute.” Wait a second… If I focus on everything, I focus on nothing, right? Aren’t these tools supposed to help my accuracy and improve situational awareness? They’re certainly not supposed to get in the way of the work having a successful outcome.

Don’t make my head spin, help me

Some nuclear stations were so inundated with confusion over the program from contractors coming in to support refuel outage work, and from in-house workers not seeing value in a program that is vast and not simplified. In response many of them held meetings with their Human Performance Steering Committees and asked variations on one important question: Which four human performance tools would you think would get the most bang for the buck for our station? I’ve also heard a different approach: Which 4 human performance tools would you want to use to dismantle a live bomb?

The results from these challenges are sometime referred to as the CORE-4 human performance tools – a simplified set of tools everybody employs when it matters: NOT ALL OF THE TIME…. remember again, when you focus on everything, you focus on nothing…

Secret revealed: 

Human Performance Tools help when you are intentional about using them… taking a pause to think about what you’re about to do before doing it is where the value is, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. That is the magic behind why these tools work so well… the work in the moment you take time to think. The bang for the buck is in choosing the tool purposefully and employing it properly. Why? Because it helps us get or maintain Situational Awareness, which is the proper state of mind to be in to reduce errors. Thinking about potential consequences and reviewing your actions prior to performing them is what makes us successful time and again.

So what are the all-important tools?

Most CORE-4 Human Performance Tools programs that I have heard of include Self-Checking, Peer-Checking, Questioning Attitude, and Job Site Review. Wait. Didn’t this post start with me saying that Questioning Attitude should not be a human performance tool? Yes!

A Questioning Attitude should exist at all times, causing you to Stop When Unsure over any concern you may have. Many Human Performance Improvement Programs call these out as separate Human Performance Tools, but that is not necessary. A questioning attitude must be constantly present to use the tools deliberately and not just out of habit or by accident. A questioning attitude gets you to use a Human Performance Tool – I see a definite distinction. Also, Stop When Unsure is really the “S” in STAR. We are unsure because of a questioning attitude, so we use Self-Checking. We are not employing three separate tools here…. just one. Let’s not overcomplicate this any longer.

In case you’re wondering

Self-Checking, Effective Communication, Verification Practices and Job Site Review are my favorites… Remember that Human Performance Tools are used to get and maintain Situational Awareness… use them when they matter the most, and not every second of the day.

So, what do YOU think?

Click some extra tool links:

TVA Toolbox

DOE Standard – Human Performance Toolbox

Selecting the Best Error-Prevention “Tools” for the Job

What makes up a Dynamic Learning Activity?

students_laptop_teacher_customA concept John (my Human Performance buddy from a nuclear plant in California) and I spoke about in the first Human Performance Tools Podcast is called “Near” or “Far” Training, which means how closely related the training method is to the actual task the worker will be performing. Sometimes practitioners train in concept alone, and sometimes they have the workers do what they normally do, but using Human Performance Tools, also. Concept training would be Far and job application of Human Performance Tools would be Near in these cases. Why does this matter at all? A couple of years ago, I asked an Instrument and Controls Technician at a nuclear plant what the best kind of training they’ve ever received was. His response was awesome: Any training where someone shows me exactly how I’m supposed to do something I will be tasked to do. Basically, echoing your thoughts on where this is heading: If it is possible to use it, Near training champions anything conceptual, or even theoretical.

Dynamic Learning Activities

The purpose of a Dynamic Learning Activity (DLA) is to provide an opportunity for workers to use their skills and knowledge while performing tasks/activities in a simulated environment. Additionally, a DLA can be used to detect latent organizational weaknesses and improve work processes and procedures.

A Dynamic Learning Activity has four parts:

  1. Facilitator introduction
  2. Pre-activity briefing with the participants
  3. Activity
  4. Post-activity critique

During the post-activity critique, the strengths and areas for improvement are discussed. The emphasis is on critical self-evaluation in a non-threatening environment. The learning comes from the interaction and collaboration during the activity, and also from the discussion of strengths and areas to improve after the activity.

DLAs are all the same in that you can get out of it, what you decide to put into it. Students should be graded by participation, not by test scores.

The commercial nuclear power industry has really latched on to DLA-style training, finding a lot of practical near and far simulations of work environments to train workers. Think of the best training you’ve ever had in your life…. was it more hands on? Probably not in a lecture hall. Some people are still confused by the difference between educating someone and training them. How would you describe the difference? Would you want to pay money to get fit by going to a weight education class, or a weight training class? There are many other comparisons, but as you can see, the education side leans toward the Knowledge (Cognitive) taxonomy, and the training side leans toward the Skill (Psycho-motor) taxonomy. Both are important, but what is the goal of the class in the first place – to learn concepts or teach application?

Now that the difference has been cleared up, training is the goal of a DLA, and doesn’t always get into the theory behind why things are the way they are, but is that such a bad thing?

Why use theory in a classroom?

A few years ago I was tasked with developing Leadership Observation training as a nuclear industry response to INPO’s call for SOER 10-02 engaged worker effort. I started pulling in all industry training ever given on the subject that INPO recognized as the best practice for this training. I developed 9 hardcore objectives and sliced, diced, and supported all of these objectives with practical activities, as well as theory to support them. The theory was really about what was happening, but not being said, and the practical was visual or audible and easily apparent to the learner during the activities. This really made sense to me – show them how to get the outcome they desire, and also talk about the foundation for why it works that way. A VP of Engineering totally through me for a loop as I was delivering the pilot program to upper management. He said to ditch the theory and just stick with the practical. Obviously, I was surprised that this type of criticism would come from an Engineer whom for years has thrived on theory and why things work the way they do, so I did not take it lightly and in the end, revamped the whole program to three easy-to-apply in a classroom environment objectives for the entire 4-hour long class. I have since made a concerted effort to keep too much theory out of the classroom and give learners the practical what they’re looking for approach: Training.

The next level: Have you ever heard of a “Reverse or Flipped Classroom?”

I love love love this idea. All the theory and studying happens outside of the class, but when class starts, it’s all about applying what you’ve learned in simulated situations. The instructor is looked at more as a facilitator by setting the testing trials and practical games up, and helping the students work through using what they learned prior to class. This also helps an instructor who may only be given an hour to teach a two hour class. Pre-work has to be interesting and somewhat fun to expect adult students to actually do what they need to prep for class, so be careful on that. Reading something short, watching a video, doing some research, are all things students can do OUTSIDE of the classroom. Professional adult classroom time is valuable and should be used wisely. Companies are always seeking to cut training, and with the reverse classroom, you have a new tool to help with training Return-On-Investment (ROI).

Follow up video links:

The Flipped Class: Rethinking Space and Time

The Flipped Class: Overcoming Common Hurdles

I Flip, You Flip, We All Flip: Setting up a flipped classroom

Use Jolts by Thiagi: 123 Clap

Pretty dynamic teaching






What is the difference between HPE, HPT and HPI and does it matter?


(Editor’s note: Since this website started, the intent has been for guest bloggers to share their wisdom with this audience. Thank you Ms.Marshall for being the first to post with an excellent topic and article. Enjoy – JDN)


HPE, HPT, HPI, What?

Authored by: Vivian Marshall, PhD, and Travis Lowe
Edited by: James D. Newman

The terms Human Performance Engineering (HPE), Human Performance Technology (HPT), and Human Performance Improvement (HPI) have been used interchangeably, ever since Tom Gilbert introduced the term in the late 1970s. This is unfortunate as some believe this misuse of terms may have created a lack of understanding of the concepts and a breakthrough in human performance improvement. This article focuses on establishing definitions for each of the terms, and providing evidence that clarity and agreement on these terms is critical to moving forward with a comprehensive and viable approach to improving human performance.

A Common Language

Langdon first documented the importance of using a common language that is understood by all in his book, The New Language of Work (1995). This book grew out of Langdon’s frustrations from observing Quality Groups struggling to discuss and solve problems without an agreed upon language. Langdon noted that without a common language, individuals may jump to solutions (which may or may not be the best initiative), and actually believe they are talking about the same things when they were not. This confusion resulted in endless debates that did not produce a viable solution. Langdon concluded many times the solution chosen was the result of the person who shouted the loudest instead of using analysis data to clarify and substantiate the facts of a given situation.

This lack of a commonly agreed upon language accepted by the majority of people may have created a barrier to acceptance and application of HPE, HPT, and HPI.  Gilbert (1978) first created the term “Human Performance Engineering” when he came to the conclusion that formal learning programs too often only brought about a change in knowledge; not a change in behavior. Gilbert was a behavioral psychologist who worked with B.F. Skinner. While Skinner was working on positive reinforcement, Gilbert was analyzing the attributes of good performers in an attempt to understand competency.  Gilbert’s discovery that skills cannot transfer or modify behaviors if the work environment presents barriers to the desired performance, was a major breakthrough for taking a new approach to human performance problems.

What is performance?

Gilbert’s observations lead to his concluding that performance is a function of an interaction between a person’s behavior and his or her work environment (or P = B x E). Gilbert’s discovery provided the basis for systematically analyzing performer behaviors and identifying barriers to performance in the work environment. Despite the fact that Gilbert copyrighted his work in 1978, little progress has been made in the corporate world toward implementing a holistic approach (such as HPE) to human performance improvement.

The words “Human Performance”

While there are clear definitions for engineering, technology, and improvement, when human performance is added in front of these terms, for some reason, clarity is loss on what each means and they are typically used interchangeably. However, it important that each term be clearly defined because each has a distinctively different meaning.

Let’s look at the definitions of engineering; technology, and improvement.

  • Engineering has been defined as the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that helps ensure a desired objective is safely achieved.
  • Most of the existing literature will tell you that technology is the usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, and crafts.
  • Improvement is the act of improving or changing something for the better.

Why then, when the term human performance is added to each of these terms, is the clarity of its meaning lost? Perhaps it should be that the discipline is Human Performance Engineering (HPE) the technology or methodology used is Human Performance Technology (HPT) and the outcome or result should be Human Performance Improvement (HPI).

Lockheed Martin, Orlando, Florida, has defined Human Performance Engineering (HPE) as a systematic approach to solving complex problems experienced by individuals, teams or units. As stated on their website, HPE utilizes Human Performance Technology (HPT), which includes a rigorous analysis of current and desired levels of performance, to identify the causes for the performance gap, offers a wide range of interventions, guides the change management process, and provides evaluation and feedback on the results. We can agree that Human Performance Engineering uses Human Performance Technologies (HPT) in one seamless process for integrating training and non-training solutions in order to develop and employ human resources wisely so that the actions result in Human Performance Improvement (HPI).

Human Performance Engineering has been described as a diagnostic process similar to a doctor and patient relationship. While the diagnostic and prescriptive processes are part of HPE, a doctor focuses on the problem primarily residing with the patient. With HPE, no such assumption is made. HPE may focus on an individual’s performance in order to understand the performance gap, but the in-depth analyses must take into account the fact that there are many other factors, which can affect his or her performance. Human Performance Engineering goes beyond identifying and resolving individual performance problems—we firmly believe that Human Performance Engineering helps ensure individual performance problems are addressed and resolved AND performance barriers, such as equipment, materials, knowledge, methods, administrative and managerial systems are analyzed for possible corrections or enhancements so there will be significant improvement in overall performance that leads to improved bottom line results.

In short Human Performance Engineering focuses on correcting, enhancing and/or adding to– (engineering) the work environment– so that barriers to performance are removed and the environment supports the desired behaviors. Of course the individual must have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to perform the desired tasks safely and efficiently. Most individuals in the field agree that Human Performance Engineering goes beyond simply training an individual.


There are many kinds of engineers such as mechanical engineers, process engineers, electrical engineers, etc. Each type of engineer specializes in a particular type or field of engineering. Human Performance Engineering specializes in human performance improvement resulting in organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Engineering is not a set of steps that can be applied to every problem the same way each time, but a skilled engineer has a toolkit filled with tools, technologies, and methods that can be applied to a particular situation to resolve the engineering problem. Human Performance Engineering is also not a “cookbook” approach with the same steps applied each time in the exact same way; it is a Systematic Approach. Similar to other engineers the Human Performance Engineer should have in their toolkit tools, technologies and methods that can be applied to help resolve performance issues.

Systematic Approach

A Systematic Approach begins by establishing the current situation; then identifying the desired or future situation (the level of desired performance). Diagnostic activities such as clarifying the problem or opportunity, and defining desired outcomes or what success looks like are crucial. Steps include assessing performance, conducting gap analysis, identifying factors causing the gap, along with developing intervention options, completing feasibility studies, and/or, depending upon the performance gap, other types of analyses.

Human Performance Engineering, while not in the embryonic phase, is still in its early infancy even though it has been over thirty years since Gilbert introduced the concept. For the field to expand and develop, it is imperative to have clear definitions for what we do, how we do it, and what the value is that we provide to the organization. Another possible contributor to the lack of development of the HPE field may be due to the lack of an agreed upon set of tools that can be used to approach the field of Human Performance Improvement (or a comprehensive approach) to engineering human performance. Little research has resulted in the development of applicable tools for analyzing, implementing, and evaluating non-training interventions.

Some organizations have recognized that behaviors are important but only a few have adapted Gilbert’s model for Performance (P = B x E). With an agreed upon definition to the three terms, progress is possible in moving Human Performance Engineering to the forefront of what leaders do.

More topical links (thanks to some readers for additional recommendations)

Click here for what ISPI says about HPT

Click here for Human Performance Improvement

Click here for Human Performance Improvement vs Technology

Langdon’s Language of Work Model

Clarify “HPT”

2008 Rummler video

ISPI Performance Improvement

An Overview of HPT

Some advice from the Editor

Consider a “Common Language” document with definitions for all of your Human Performance terms, and you can remove the definitions from all of the other procedures. Consider “Near Misses” as a good place to start, or what constitutes a “Peer” when Peer Checking.

Indicators part 2: What does a comprehensive program contain?

We already know how to look at event rate by counting threshold events and dividing by worker hours, but that only tells us one third of the story. So, what’s missing? OUTCOMES! How many times have we performed tasks successfully? This will be difficult to quantify immediately, but this can be broken down into process parts – how many work orders completed, separated by new installations, surveillance testing, preventative maintenance, corrective maintenance and troubleshooting. This tells us a story – how many times we have good outcomes versus bad ones for a period of time. A good indicator will tell you that story.

Bring it all together, please!

Okay, what’s the third piece of the indicator puzzle? Not all outcomes were achieved in the desired fashion. Shortcuts taken, rushing the job, and a myriad of other things could result in a satisfactory job outcome, but certainly, not a job well done. What were the behaviors that got you to that outcome? This is where a slick Observation program comes in where peers can remark on each other and management can also weigh in on behaviors that were used during the work.

Now this is a more comprehensive program – failure rate, success count, and behaviors that helped get desired outcomes.

In the dark room (where development happens)

Now that you have this information, the puzzle comes together to develop a picture. This picture should give you a fairly accurate depiction of where to focus your error prevention program. The problem remains, if you don’t do anything with the data, why are you going through all of the trouble to track, trend, and observe it in the first place?

A quick anecdote to drive this home

I remember a time in my past years ago where a Maintenance Corrective Action Coordinator spelled out in detail the problems in the Maintenance department and 3 focus areas to turn performance around. His report was collected, reviewed and overall ignored by management (he became highly frustrated and quit a very good paying job shortly afterwards). No kidding- within 2 months, all three of his predictors became true. If you’re not going to use this information to improve, don’t bother capturing it all and analyzing it. You’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Some suggestions

Indicators must begin with the end in mind (Thank you Mr. Covey). What are you going to do with the information to improve performance?

Check out this TEDx Talk on starting with the end in mind! Great story on how sheep respond (carrots and sticks) and “energy through hope!”

Sometimes a simple indicator is all that is necessary. See this excerpt from “The Sid Story” with Dennis Franz for a nice training example of a simple efficiency (but specific) indicator positively affecting department performance. I love this story about an indicator improving performance because people knew the score… Everyone who knows me, knows I love “Gamification.” This is an excellent form of it.


For everyone that discusses these posts in LinkedIn, and for all the thoughtful emails I’ve received – I wanted to say thank you for being part of this community and keeping these conversations on performance improvement going. More posts and new podcasts coming soon!!!!

Are all disasters preventable? (Earthquakes and Positive Train Control)

The Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction at United Nations Environment Programme, Muralee Thummarukudy stated, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Click here for more on an environmental overview of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti – page 17. When the dust finally settled in Haiti, people will be able to identify the single most important agent of mass death and destruction: concrete. Thummarukudy continued in his TedX talk to say more to that point: poorly designed buildings kill people. Click the picture to the left to see the very impressive 16 minute TedX talk.

Thummarukudy also said, “We should always look backward before you plan forward.” – Rings true of the “Be Prepared” post. Think of how important using lessons learned can be when we properly incoprporate them into the next performance of a task. Knowledge is transfered.

Thummarukudy has a blog you can find by clicking here.

Click here for an interview (of Thummarkudy) by a student in Bangladore on what a career in disaster management is like.

A little about Engineered Barriers and PTC

So, why talk about disaster management and PTC in the same post? Engineered safeguards (barriers) are the best defense against human error and natural disaster. It reminds me of the reducing radiation exposure concept for nuclear workers – ALARA (As low as reasonably acheivable), and how time, distance, and shielding are the engineering controls designed to protect the worker.

According to a June 19, 2013 youtube clip, the American railroad infrastructure needs billions of dollars for track improvement and updating. Lawmakers are trying to figure out who is going to pay what and when it’s needed by in the wake of a large number of train disasters in 2013. One thought is to install new anti-crash signaling technology called Positive Train Control, but who will pay for it, and who needs it done and by when. These are interesting topics to follow as time progresses.

PTC stands for Positive Train Control and according to wikipedia it is a system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements to provide increased safety.

The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) describes Positive Train Control as having these primary characteristics:

  • Train separation or collision avoidance
  • Line speed enforcement
  • Temporary speed restrictions
  • Rail worker wayside safety

Positive Train Control (PTC)

  • Designed to eliminate the verbal “read and repeat” process
  • Real-time monitoring
  • Manual Switch positions
  • Distribution of speed restriction

PTC with an Affective message here.

Click here for an older video showing how ETMS (Electronic Train Management System – BNSF’s version of Positive Train Control) works. Since the system is still a work in progress things in this video are likely to change for the better but it’s still a great demonstration of how the system works. In the end it will just make for a safer railway.

More info on PTC can be found at www.bnsf.com or at Wikipedia here.