Human Performance Improvement Tools

Improving human performance is essential for any business not just in terms of profit, but in safety and operations as well.

We're all familiar with the physical tools that help us do our jobs each day, but there are also tools in the human performance improvement toolkit that help us perform our work safely and without incident.

These tools are interlocking skills that can and should be used together to improve efficiency and help you work safely on every job. Without these advanced tools, efficient human improvement process would be difficult to achieve.

While some of these tools are well known, others are new or improved tactics developed over years of trial, error and (unfortunately) lessons learned from incident investigations.

While there are no silver bullets to improve worker safety, adding these tools to your human performance improvement toolbox will help operations run more efficiently, and – as should be everyone's focus – more safely.

What is an improvement? How does the human improvement process work? Let us walk you through the processes.

Identifying Critical Steps

Performing work is often a linear process. Step 1 comes before step 2, and so on. While rework is never ideal, an error identified in a previous step can often be fixed relatively easily.

Quite frequently, there are critical steps in a process that must be performed correctly to avoid adverse consequences or irreparable harm to personnel or equipment.

A quality procedure will highlight each critical step in a process with potential hazards and risk mitigation methods. In the absence of a quality procedure, a skilled worker with a questioning attitude will still be able to identify critical steps in his or her work.

Once a critical step has been identified, the acronym SAFE will help you or your employee work through the job in a safe manner.

The letters in SAFE stand for Summarize, Anticipate, Foresee and Evaluate. While this sounds like a formal process, a SAFE assessment can be done in a few moments.

One of the common pitfalls we have encountered is the presence of time pressure. The effects of time pressure can cause you to work through critical steps without taking the time to evaluate the potential consequences of your actions.

Even perceived time pressure can have the same effect on an employee as actual time pressure – from, say, a looming deadline or an overzealous supervisor.

Effective Communications

One of the most overlooked tools in the human performance improvement toolkit is the use of effective communication.

When we communicate with our colleagues (peers, supervisors or subordinates), we do so with the expectation that we are being understood. If you knew you weren't being understood, why would you waste your time explaining what you just said?

To communicate effectively, focus on three key aspects of any form of communication:

  1. Three-part communication, also known as closed-loop communication

  2. Use of individual numbers

  3. The phonetic alphabet

Three-Part Communication

Three-part communication fits into the human performance improvement toolkit. Ensuring each message is understood by the intended parties and also communicates back to the sender of the message that what is expected is understood. The process goes like this:

  1. The sender provides the information.

  2. The receiver hears the information and repeats it back to the sender.

  3. The sender closes the communication loop with, "That's correct," or "STOP; that's wrong."

This type of communication has been proven to reduce the number of errors that result from miscommunication.

Individual Numbers

Depending on the type of numerical information being communicated, the information is conveyed in different ways at different times. Often when telling someone a two- or three-digit number, we speak the entire number: 14 is spoken fourteen; 200 is two hundred. But when we encounter numbers with four or more digits, we use the format that is comfortable. U.S. phone and Social Security numbers are broken into groups of three and four digits, while dates are spoken in a variety of different combinations of numbers and abbreviations.

To ensure numerical information is understood, the best way to communicate is by using single digits or individual numbers. As an example, the number 215 should be communicated as "2-1-5," instead of "two-fifteen." In certain noise conditions, "two-fifteen' and "two-fifty" are difficult to tell apart.

Phonetic Alphabet

Similar to individual numbers, use of the phonetic alphabet is an important way to communicate alpha-numeric information. Using the word instead of the letter prevents the receiver from hearing the letter incorrectly.

For example, say the switch number BC13D as "Bravo, Charlie, One, Three, Delta."

For a full list of the phonetic alphabet, you can refer to the Knowledge Vine Field Guide or find a copy of it on

Peer Check

Though not always applicable to the job at hand, the peer check tool puts the old adage "two heads are better than one" to good use. When performing tasks that may have an immediate adverse consequence, using a peer check will reduce the chance of an error. Here's how it works:

If you've reached a critical step in your process or the task you are performing could have significant adverse consequences if performed incorrectly, ask a peer to check your work before proceeding.

You should state what you are about to do and why. "According to the procedure, I need to open valve ALPHA, which is this one. Do you agree that this is the correct value to open and that it is safe to do so?"

Only when the person performing the peer check understands the task and agrees with your course of action should he or she respond in the affirmative: "I agree that it is the correct valve to open and it is safe to do so."

It is also important to use effective communication tools when performing a peer check. You don't want to think you've taken the correct actions and asked for a peer check and then ended up with a recordable incident.

A peer check should address the potential that your next planned action should not be taken. If you are operating a valve, the person performing the peer check must ensure the lineup is correct, the path is clear and that there are no other hazards associated with operating the valve in question.

Don't fall into the trap of "pencil whipping" the peer check by not considering the potential for failure before you move to the next step.

Post-Job Review

Post-job reviews (also known as after-action reviews or capturing lessons learned) is an unavoidable step in the continuous improvement or human performance improvement process. It is also the most helpful tool for preventing repeat errors on recurring jobs.

At Knowledge Vine, we use the acronym TOAST to remember Traps, Organizational Weakness, Additions, Simplify, and Tools.

  • Traps: Did the job have traps that you didn't anticipate at the beginning? Are there steps you can take to avoid that trap in the future?

  • Organizational Weakness: Sometimes the "problem" comes from the organization's system. Was something in the way the job was scheduled, drawn up, designed or assigned that made it difficult for you to be successful?

  • Additions: Are there additional tools, resources or other error defenses that need to be added to the job next time? Identify those additions for the next time this job is worked.

  • Simplify: What (if anything) can be done to make the job simpler To reduce chances for error by removing unnecessary steps?

  • Tools: What tools were not used that could have improved job performance?  This is primarily focused on human performance tools but could refer to physical tools for doing the work.

Post-job reviews are best performed as soon as the work is completed. They should involve every member of the work group.

Jobs used to be done when the work was complete. Then the mindset shifted to the understanding that the work was not complete until all the tools were put away. The "new normal" is the work is not complete until the post-job review has been performed.

When performing a post-job review, identify what went right. Hard-working employees benefit from positive reinforcement, so take the time to celebrate the wins.

Identify the opportunities for improvement. Capture lessons learned from the work, and make necessary changes to procedures or job plans. Include any newly identified hazards in the job risk assessment, and include appropriate mitigating actions for those hazards.

Sometimes you find an improvement opportunity that you and your co-workers can't make happen. Those need to be passed to a supervisor or manager. Make sure those leaders are kept in the loop.

Post-job reviews are the best time to identify and formally capture opportunities for improvement. Don't let your desire to get to the next job allow you to skip this important tool in the human performance improvement process.


The use of procedures and checklists can help ensure the right actions are taken, at the right time, while identifying the correct tools and hazard avoidance/mitigation measures to keep personnel working in a safe manner.

Remember, procedures are written by people, and people make mistakes. Use a questioning attitude when performing each step to make it is the correct action and you understand the expected results.

While not every procedure is perfect, it is important to avoid skipping steps or taking shortcuts (also known as procedural drift).

If you deviate from a written procedure for any reason, follow your company's policy for doing so. While the long-term solution will likely require a management of change (MOC) to modify the existing procedure, supervisory approval should allow you to perform the work as long as a proper risk assessment is performed for the deviation.

Questioning Attitude

Cultivating a questioning attitude in your employees is an important step in developing critical thinking skills that will elevate your operations to the next level.

A questioning attitude involves considering the possible consequences of your actions if performed incorrectly, rather than the likelihood of something going wrong.

"What's the worst thing that's can reasonably happen to me, my coworkers or my team if this action goes wrong?"

If you consistently focus on the relationship between the worst possible outcome and the likelihood of that outcome, you are playing with the law of averages. Instead of avoiding or mitigating hazards, you are gambling with the likelihood of the outcome.

When you consider the worst outcome that can reasonably occur if something goes wrong, you recognize the possible consequences. This focus on outcomes will allow you to appropriately address the potential causes of adverse consequences.

There is no perfect time to use a questioning attitude. It should get the most use. Every step of every job, every group decision and every action can benefit from a questioning attitude.

Treat this human performance improvement tool like a knife that is sharpened every time you use it. This is a tool that will never wear out. It becomes more effective the more it is used.

Second Check

A second check involves getting a coworker to check your work after you've completed it, verifying it was done correctly. If errors are found, they can be corrected before any permanent damage is done.

Unlike a peer check, a second check isn't performed until a task has been completed. Securing a line or fitting of a piece of safety equipment are examples of when to use the second check.

Timing is still important for the second check to successfully prevent an incident. Don't ask for a second check of lifting gear after the load is suspended, or request a second check of your SCBA when you're already in a low-oxygen environment.

To be successful, the second check should be performed with as little input as possible from the person who did the work.

The idea is to get a fresh set of eyes on the work you just completed. That person is more likely to spot a mistake if you don't give him or her step-by-step comments that create a  group-think environment.


Self-checking is one of the most fundamental human performance improvement tools. This tool helps you focus on the task you are about to perform.

Having a healthy questioning attitude will help with the self-checking process. This tool requires you to look for potential hazards in your own work.

As with some of the other tools in your human performance improvement toolkit, we use an easy-to-remember acronym for the self-checking steps.


  • Stop: Stop what you are doing, take a moment to focus and mentally prepare for what you are about to do. Research proves that simply stopping for a moment to focus on the task increases the chance you will be successful.

  • Think: Think through the action you're going to take. Be sure that you're ready to perform the step. What should you expect to see happen when you take this step? Thinking about the step you're about to take will give you another chance to see if something is out of place.

  • Act: Take the action that you stopped and thought about. Act conservatively, and look for any sign that something is not right.

  • Review: Review what just happened when you took the action. Did you get the result you expected? Is anything out of the ordinary that you need to consider before you perform your next step?

Self-checking is about personal responsibility and giving you the tools to be successful and work safely and efficiently.

The human performance improvement tools we discuss here can be applied to every aspect of your personal and professional life. No one tool can ensure every job is performed without incident, but the combined use of these tools can help you close the gap and set your employees up for success on every job, every time.