Believe it or not, you can apply the rule of Human Performance just about anywhere. I’ll give you an example. Just this week, my daughter and her husband, who is dealing with the flu, woke up to a 58-degree house. They checked the vents and messed with the thermostat but couldn’t get the heat blowing. They called their landlord for a service call, but it was going to be a while before someone could come to check it out. Not wanting to wait half a day for heat, they decided they were going to get in the attic to see if the pilot light on the furnace was out. Before they entered the attic, I received a “what are we looking for” call.
I’m not an HVAC guy, but I am a homeowner. I know some basic things to do but have never owned a gas furnace. I wasn’t too keen on them, just lighting matches in the attic without knowing what was happening. Using the ole Questioning Attitude, I said to look around and see if there is anything obvious and get the furnace's model number. It might be a simple fix, and we’ll look up that model to see if there are any procedures, troubleshooting guides, or videos explaining how to ignite the pilot light for that unit. When you get up there, let’s FaceTime so I can give you a Peer Check.
Side note: When she was 16, my Human Performance efforts were met with an eye-roll the director of The Exorcists would be proud of. When she’s in a 58-degree house with a sick husband, she doesn’t bat an eye.
They found this exact switch in the off position.
As it turns out, they had a roof leak the prior week. The roofers came out and repaired the leak, but the painters, who were there to fix the ceiling damage, went into the attic the day before the heat went out. One of two things likely happened. Either the painters in a dark attic, tried this switch before they found the light switch (they were close together), or they accidentally bumped it off as they worked (it was in an area where this could easily happen).
We verified with the operating manual we found online that it was OK to just turn it back on and flip this switch. Warm air was blowing again within a few minutes, and they canceled the maintenance call.
In Human Performance jargon, we would call this setup an “error-like situation, " which begs many questions. Why was this switch even there? Why is there a “turn it off” option if you never turn it off? Why isn’t the furnace powered and controlled from the breaker box? Why was this switch located where it could be easily bumped or confused with a light switch? Why isn’t the switch covered or protected? Why is a handwritten sign (that only kind of reads “furnace”) our only guidance?
I turned to Google for some answers. The only thing I could find is that sometimes, during construction, the electricians put this in the attic, so the HVAC tech has an electrical disconnect within view. However, I also read posting after posting all saying, "I can’t tell you how many service calls I go on, and it’s just that the ‘furnace light switch’ was turned off.” Boxes bump the switch. Christmas lights are being pulled out of the attic and catch the switch. It was mistaken for a light switch. One particularly informative blog post even said, “This is an error-likely set-up (Yes!), so be sure not to make the mistake of turning it off (What!?).” If we need the switch (which we don’t, from what I read), can we at least cover it and put it in a less conspicuous location? Switch covers would pay for themselves after you avoid just one unnecessary service call, not to mention the avoided inconvenience of a cold house.
Another Human Performance concept is the idea of the “extent of the condition.” In other words, if we find an issue or latent organizational weakness, we must ask, “Where else could this be a problem?” So, let’s extend that Questioning Attitude to our workplace today.
Do you have informal signs and guidance around your facility? Are there handwritten labels in the plant? Are they accurate? Are there sticky notes on panels or control boards? Do they still apply, and do they make sense? Do your procedures have handwritten notes in the margins that have not been verified or gone through a procedure revision process? Are there cautions or warnings to avoid us taking an action when the solution should be not to make that action an option? Why is there an off switch if we aren’t turning it off?
Don’t mistake a sign, note, or label for a fix. Don’t assume Sharpie writing on the wall is correct. Don’t use sticky notes when you can revise the procedure. Most importantly, don’t roll your eyes when dad is trying to bring a little Human Performance home.