What do you know about Decision Making? Here are 6 tools to help!

give_red_blue_pill_choice_800_clr_15013How often have you heard or thought about your decision making process? The outcome of our decisions pretty much choose our entire life outcome. Have you noticed that certain types of people are really good at making decisions? These are the kinds of people we try to be and we want as spouses, friends, colleagues, and also the kind of people we try our very best to teach our children to be. We are very human, however, and always making the best decision sometimes eludes us, but we can build a toolbox of suggestions for consideration when making a new decision. Here are some tools I’ve created or found along the way to help with the decision-making process. I hope you decide to use them:

Tool #1: Research

When buying a product or service we have buyer’s guides (that cost money), Consumer Reports, Angie’s List or even free resources like CNET and a host of other places to look into online to determine the reliability of the item and the worthiness of the cost. Some people are very good at research, but still very apprehensive to buy. Even movies get critic ratings that some of use review to see if it’s a movie or show we’d like to spend our time watching or not. Decision making research can be helpful, but is not always available, depending on the context of the situation. When considering a decision, there are thousands of places to research online covering a myriad of topics.

Here are some helpful FREE online research resources:

Google Scholar (Did you know this existed?)

International Institute of Social Studies

Enoch Pratt Free Library

Wiley Online Library


Open Library


Tool #2: Second and Third Opinions

Have you every ran something by your parents? …or spouse? …or best friend? This idea is very standard and basically is just running the parameters of the decision by someone you trust, and getting their input before your final move. Caution on this one: make sure they are good listeners before trying this, and you respect their previous decisions on similar matters.

Tool #3: Gut Check

Do I feel right about the decision? Are there moral or ethical ties to this decision that are keeping me from making it or not? If so, maybe you’ve already made the best decision for you. Doing nothing is a decision.

Tool #4: Similarity Check

Does this current situation resemble a lesson you learned from someone else or yourself from the past? Really think about the parameters and determine if you think it’s similar enough and this becomes your mental model for this new choice.  Another name for this is “Experience.” Here is the famous overarching quote on the matter by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Tool #5: The (always-biased) Pro vs. Con List

Everyone has used this at one point or another – developing a list of pros and cons that will happen if we decide on way versus another. This list will always be biased, even if you have someone else make it for you, because then their biases will be included. I heard on a podcast that if you look at good decisions you’ve made in the past and ferret out a process for how you came to that decision (Simon Sinek calls them filters), you may be able to apply that process to the current situation. I like that idea better than a biased pro vs. con list, even though it takes work to develop, but you might learn something worthwhile about yourself in the process.

A link to follow up more on this tool:

How to make good decisions? Hint: A pros/cons list won’t help

Tool #6: READE (pronounced as “ready“)

In some parts of the commercial nuclear power world training has been created to help make better decisions under production pressure, operational risk, and other error precursors. Without diving too deep into the training, here is what the overall premise of READE looks like:

Recognize the degraded condition or uncertain situation that threatens safety

Express the situation in terms of consequence (if left alone) related to:

  1. Personal safety and well-being
  2. Plant safety and reliability
  3. Environmental safety

Appraise the situation to identify conditions that could threaten safety

Decide what to do to resolve the situation safely

Evaluate the effectiveness of the actions in achieving the desired results

When should READE be used?

A conservative approach is necessary when encountering the following conditions, or others similar, during activities or processes that could affect safety:

  • Unexpected results
  • Uncertain, degraded, or unstable conditions
  • No slack—low margin for error
  • No opportunities to redo or recover—irreversible actions
  • Complexity—hard to understand
  • Limited guidance—unclear guidance in procedures
  • Need for high levels of precision
  • Multiple concurrent activities that require a significant degree of coordination
  • First time or infrequently performed evolution

Other situations that call for a conservative decision making approach occur in the following situations:

  • A serious performance gap to excellence exists.
  • A significant change to an important plant process or program is being considered that could impact personnel performance.
  • Fast-track job or work assignments are made (to be immediately implemented).

The READE Tool reminds us to include risk and consider consequence when making impactful decisions.

Some extra links you may consider:

[Author note: There are a ton of resources on decision-making… these are just some I think you’ll enjoy across multi-media formats.]


This Freakonomics link will actually HELP you make a decision, no matter how complicated


How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work: Chip Heath

Simon Sinek on How to Make Better Choices and Live More Fully

Confidence-driven decision-making: Peter Atwater at TEDxWilmington


“Decisive” by Chip and Dan Heath


“Decisive”: Chip Heath on How to Make Better Choices


A 4-Step Process for Making Better Decisions by Michael Hyatt


Should I care about “Performance Modes?”

three_volume_set_16417What are “Performance Modes?” We call them Skill, Rule and Knowledge Based performance. These apply to the mode of operation we are in every moment of the day, depending on the situations we find ourselves in.

  • Skill-based – stored patterns of pre-programmed instructions
  • Rule-based – familiar problems are addressed by application of stored rules
  • Knowledge-based – novel situations in which actions must be planned, using conscious analytic processes and stored knowledge

James Reason classified errors based on Rasmussen’s 3 levels of performance:

  • Skill-based errors – slips and lapses – when the action made is not what was intended
  • Rule-based mistakes – actions that match intentions but do not achieve their intended outcome due to incorrect application of a rule or inadequacy of the plan.
  • Knowledge-based mistakes – actions which are intended but do not achieve the intended outcome due to knowledge deficits.

[Source: “Human Performance” from Duke’s Patient Safety]

Error precursor effect on Performance Modes:

Some error precursors are particularly powerful, depending on the performance mode of the individual performing the action. For instance;

Skill-based performance– strongly influenced by distractions, simultaneous tasks, and fatigue

Rule-based performance – strongly influenced by mindset confusing displays, and confusing procedures

Knowledge-based performance – strongly influenced by assumptions, first-time performance of the task, time pressure, lack of knowledge, and inexperience

[Source: “Human Error,” by Brian Harkins, slide 25]

So what?

My thoughts: when someone is performing a procedure they can be in at least three modes at the same time… the mode for the environmental situation (Have I been here before?), the mode for the task they are performing (Have I done this before?) and their general familiarity for performing procedures (Is this my first time?). This is where I believe a lot of investigations that cite performance modes as a cause or contributor to a failure really aren’t helping. I think the best use of knowing which performance mode the worker was in when an error happened is for creating a corrective action better aligned with the actual problem – i.e. a rule-based error should get a rule-based fix. We often start out in skill-based mode and the error happens when something changes and we did not recognize it and fail because of having the wrong mental model (knowledge based mode – you don’t know what you don’t know – fast switch from skill to knowledge). Addressing why the mode changed is an excellent way to develop a solution to prevent that shift in the future.

My bottom line on this is regarding teaching human performance fundamentals to workers. I have not seen worker “aha moments” that will prevent future failure, because we’ve taught them about performance modes in training. I think they should be used as an investigative tool for practitioners and not entirely necessary for workers to bother learning in any detail.

Terms: Skill, Rule and Knowledge

One fo my favorite Nuclear Power plant CEOs and I got into an awesome discussion/debate over lunch about why he thought workers should be in Knowledge Based mode and we should have them trained and supported to have the correct mental model when performing work. The names given to these modes have often confused people because they do not adequately represent the modes they describe….

I think the terms should be more like: Familiar, Instructional, and Unknowns (or Unfamiliar)… that may put a better light on what they actually represent!!!

What are your thoughts? I’m open to criticism and your candor on this post.

Extra Links to support the post:

Click here and check out the SRK Framework section

Understanding Human Behaviour and Error by David Embrey

Patient Safety and Quality Improvement (through Duke University)

Wikipedia on “Human Reliability” (plenty of extra links here)

Author’s note: Sorry for no video link on this post’s top left pic – there are no videos that I could find on the internet associated with performance modes. More content coming soon! Topic suggestions are always encouraged and accepted with open arms!

What exactly is a “Human Performance” tool?

boxy_robot_hold_wrench_14592Oh no – Could a Human Performance Tool maybe not be a tool at all??? In social media space there have been some questions about the actual definition of a human performance tool, so I thought it would be wise to dedicate a post to the namesake website. By the way, our industry is shifting towards being called “Event-Free Performance,” not “Human Performance.” Quite possibly, you did not hear that here first… Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on this historic change.

Let’s start defining a “tool”… and yes, I slightly edited some vulgarity out of the definitions…

google logo


  1. a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.
  2. a distinct design in the tooling of a book.
  1. impress a design on (leather, especially a leather book cover).
  2. equip or be equipped with tools for industrial production.
  3. drive or ride in a casual or leisurely manner.

Merriam Webster says

Definition of TOOL


a :  a handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task

b (1) :  the cutting or shaping part in a machine or machine tool (2) :  a machine for shaping metal :  machine tool


a:  something (as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession <a scholar’s books are his tools>

b :  an element of a computer program (as a graphics application) that activates and controls a particular function <a drawing tool>

c :  a means to an end <a book’s cover can be a marketing tool>


My favorite part from the extremely useful DOE Handbook

“For the human performance tools to provide value in improving safety, workers first must possess a solid foundation in the technical fundamentals of the equipment, systems, and operational processes they work with. Facility equipment, work processes, the organization and its culture, and its oversight processes all contain hidden flaws or latent conditions that could cause harm if work is undertaken without thinking. Safety is not obtained by mindlessly applying human performance tools but rather by people conscientiously applying their knowledge, skills, experience and insights, as well as the tools to accomplish their work goals.”

What is your opinion?

I’m sure you already knew this, but if you’re new to the field let this sink in: if using a Human Performance tool saves the day, the system needs to be fixed. I see a Human Performance tool as a simplified method for remembering how to do a best practice when it matters the most – usually and most likely prior to a critical step. These tools are directly about prevention of errors that may quickly translate into an event, depending on the circumstances. Human Performance tools can also be physical barriers of defense to prevent us from doing something unintended, such as railings, shields, or guards near running equipment or ledges. By the above definitions, if a scholar’s book is a tool, than a procedure, job aid, manual, or method is also a tool. That’s how I see it.

Engineering barriers to prevent events

Forget Human Performance tools for a minute, hands down the absolute best way to prevent events is to build in interlocks that serve as hard barriers that do not ALLOW you to make a mistake, like when a computer asks you if you’re sure you want to delete a file. This article was written by an injury lawyer, but it contains exactly the type of thinking professionals in our field need to have – what are the top tools to help workers succeed in the fields we are supporting? Included in this article link are tools for the medical profession that hospital workers should be using:
Click HERE to explore the article.

A suggestion to look into

If you’re working with people that do a lot of monitoring, like security or operators, look into a tool called “Cross-Check”. I have more info on this. Feel free to contact me.

A quick hello…

To all my new Performance Improvement colleagues from the recent NERC and NATF Human Performance Conferences – It was a pleasure meeting you and please stay in touch. Thank you for coming to the website and checking it out.

More links supporting this post:


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