Festive Failures

Festive Failures

Holidays are coming, Holidays are coming…

… not long now!

But before we relax too much, there’s chance to have a fun look at festive failure.

Given how busy and stressful time of year can be, one might even think there’s more chance of error. Always remain sensitive to the chance of failure!

So what might rear its ugly head? I’ve used some ‘failure modes’ here to prompt thought about what could happen:

  • Action too early/ too late: Have you got all the presents? Will the things still be in stock? Is the delivery delayed and will it run on time?
  • Right action on wrong object: Make sure you label presents and address envelops as you pack things. You don’t want to label something wrongly.
  • Action mistimed: Don’t overdo the potatoes or undercook the turkey.
  • Action too little / too much: Be drink aware, don’t start too early or drink too much.
  • Action omitted: Don’t forget to leave a drink and snack for Father Christmas as he’ll be very busy, tired and will need to be refreshed.
  • Action in wrong order: Don’t read out the punchline before the joke itself!

 When thinking about error we can also have different psychological mechanisms at play:

  • A slip of attention – You think that a new toy isn’t working but you may have put the batteries in the wrong way round. You might have put the turkey in the oven but accidentally put it on the wrong setting (I did similar just the other week). 
  • A lapse – Someone may have forgotten to label a present, so you don’t know who it is for. You might buy something for someone, but you forgot you got it for them last year too.
  • A mistake – This would be a knowledge-based error, like not knowing how to set-up a new gadget or how many days you can keep turkey and ham in the fridge for before it goes bad.
  • Non-compliance – Family board games are one of the most frequent places for non-compliance across any task and sector. 

 It’s impossible to anticipate everything that could go wrong, and indeed, we don’t want to. When we do this in practice we want to focus on the most critical consequences. For example, it doesn’t matter so much if you don’t get third cousin Vinny a Christmas card but if you forget your other half’s Christmas card (wife/husband) it could be catastrophic.

We’re really very good at anticipating potential deviations in performance and adapting our behaviour to improve outcomes. For example, Christmas dinner is done infrequently and can be quite demanding with all the timings so we might write down the timings to offload some of that mental effort and make sure we’re properly organised.

However, we’re not always good at anticipating.

Some festive failures that have happened closer to home:

  • A friend of mine thought they’d try goose instead of turkey for their family meal. However, when they went to cook it they found it didn’t fit in their oven. The workaround to was to use a neighbour’s oven 5 houses down, and they had to baste the goose frequently so they were running back and forth for a large part of the day.
  • My cousin got a woolly hat from an older aunt of mine. Upon opening they were disappointed to find a hole in one side. However there was also a large slit the other side, almost like they were meant to be there. They then twigged that it was actually a tea cosy, which she thought was a hat.
  • I received two cards from another aunt of mine last year, she’d obviously forgot she’d already sent one. 

Deviations in performance will be influenced by Performance Influencing Factors (PIFs). For example, is the task complex and performed infrequently, are people fatigued from the night before (maybe from last minute wrapping), have they had a drink, is there good instruction (for constructing a new toy or completing a recipe well), is there a lack of time, a lot of noise and distraction? Context drives behaviour.

Whatever goes wrong this Christmas we hope it’s fun, without blame, and you have a great time!

If you want to learn more about how anticipating failures, PIFs, and psychological mechanisms might be used in risk reduction efforts and to improve human performance in a professional context then take a look at this free mini-course:  https://the.humanreliabilityacademy.com/courses/mini-course-on-hfctr

We help clients in process industries (e.g. oil, gas and chemical plants), pharmaceutical manufacturers, and a range of other safety critical sectors and where human error has significant consequences.

Jamie Henderson

Dominic Furniss

Dominic Furniss (MSc, PhD) is a Human Factors consultant who has over 15 years of experience working across academia and industry.