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Human Error? No Problem

By Dr. Ginette M. Collazo
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How procedures can help us avoid human error in the cannabis growing process.

If you are in the business of growing cannabis, you should be aware of the common reasons for production losses, how to address root causes and how to prevent future occurrences in a sustainable way. Human error is the number one root cause identified in investigations for defects in the cultivation business. Sadly, little is known about the nature of these errors, mainly because our quest for the truth ends where it should begin, once we know it was a human error or is “someone’s fault.”

Yes, human error usually explains the reason for the occurrence, but the reason for that error remains unexplained and consequently the corrective and preventive actions fail to address the underlying conditions for that failure. This, in turn, translates into ineffective action plans that result in creating non-value added activities, wasting resources and money as well as product.

Human error can occur when workers are in direct contact with the plant

So after investigating thousands of human error events and establishing systems to improve human reliability in manufacturing facilities, it became even clearer to me, the need to have good, human-engineered standard operating procedures (SOPs).

In the cannabis growing process, there are different types of mistakes that, when analyzed, all can be addressed in the same manner. For example, some common errors that we see are either overwatering or nutrient burn, which can occur when the plant is overfed. The same is true in the opposite scenario; underfeeding or under watering lead to problems as well. If your process is not automated, the reason for these failures was most likely human error. Now, why did the person make that mistake? Was there a procedure in place? Was the employee trained? Is there a specific process with steps, sub-steps, quantities and measures? Were tools available to be able to do the task correctly? There is so much that can be done about these questions if we had clear, well-written and simple, but specific instructions. The benefits greatly outweigh the effort required.

Also, besides providing step-by-step instructions to avoid commission errors (to perform incorrectly as opposed to omit some step), there are other types of errors that can be avoided with SOPs.

Decision making like detecting nutrient deficiencies can lead to human error.

Decision-making is another reason why we sometimes get different results than the ones expected. If during your process there are critical, knowledge-based decisions, workers need to be able to get all the information to detect as well as correct situations. Some decisions are, for example, when (detection) and how (steps) should I remove bud rot? Is there a critical step in the process (caution) to avoid other plants from becoming affected? Any information on the what, how, when, where and why reduces the likelihood of a decision error, later described as obvious.

When we face manufacturing challenges like nutrient deficiency in a particular stage, mold, fungus, gnats or even pollination of females, we want to do whatever we can to prevent it from happening again. So consider that from avoiding to detecting errors, procedures are a critical factor when improving human performance.

Here are some guidelines when writing procedures to prevent human error.

  1. Use them. Enforce the use of procedures at all times. As humans, we overestimate our abilities and tend to see procedures as an affront to our skills.
  2. Make sure it is a helpful procedure and users are involved in the process. People that participate in writing rules are more likely to follow them.
  3. Make sure they are available for their use.
  4. All critical activities should have a procedure.
  5. The procedure needs to be clear, have a good format, clear graphics, appropriate level of detail and specific presentation of limits.
  6. Make sure that facts, sequence and other requirements are correct and all possible conditions are considered e.g. “what if analysis”.

Human error won’t be eradicated unless we are able to really identify what is causing humans to err. If eliminating or “fixing” the actual individual eliminates or potentially reduces the probabilities of making that mistake again, then addressing the employee would be effective. But if there is a chance that the next in line will be able to make the same mistakes, consider evaluating human factors and not the human. Take a closer look and your process, system and ultimately your procedures.

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