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Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Merits and Pitfalls of Engineered Focus in Product Safety Assurance

The "Got Ya!" Trick
You probably have had this done to you or you have done it to someone, or you have at least witnessed this trick in one form or another. I am talking about the shoulder touch trick. The shoulder is touched to make a person look one way while the person doing the touching is on the other side. Most people just laugh about this but it can create some awkward moments. Has this happened to you or do you play this trick on others?

To prove that this kind of focus engineering can be done in many other ways, you may take this 2-stage test (I trust you to finish stage 1 before 2):

Stage 1: Read the first paragraph above again to find out how many times the word “touch” and any variant of it occurs?

Stage 2: Without reading the paragraph, can you state how many times the word “look” and any variant of it occurs? You may read the paragraph again to confirm your answer.

Through this test, your focus has essentially been engineered. Although you may be wondering about the point of it, coming up with the correct numbers for "touch" and "look" respectively has probably given you a feeling of success.

This kind of engineered focus may be used to direct attention to what is important but it can also draw attention from what is crucial such as the point of this post. It is not to make the reader proficient in counting the number of times that the words "touch" and "look" appear in published posts. Oftentimes, engineered focus is not intended to divert attention from what is important but it can still end up doing exactly that where reality checks are not done from time to time. Following GPS directions is a very good example.

Unfortunately, many poorly designed instructions, guidelines or tricks end up  as decoys. They can lead to the abandonment of reason by those who tend to blindly follow instructions. In such instances, engineered focus guidelines are more distracting than beneficial. Just like the story about the girls who crashed into a lake following “bad”GPS directions - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2QIH2uz3p8 – distracting engineered focus can be disastrous. 

The "Zombiefication" of System Assessors
A prominent characteristic of distracting system assessment guidelines is their prescriptive nature that does not allow for contingencies to be properly addressed. Some system assessors are "zombiefied" by such prescriptive guidelines. Another characteristic is their subjectivity. Where guidelines are based on personal opinions (even when such opinions are drawn from a consensus reached by a committee) they can be subjective and distracting. 
Guidelines can be designed with an engineered focus that produces illusions of success, particularly when such success is subjectively determined. For example, the large number of operations enlisting in generic food safety certification schemes is sometimes counted as success in ensuring product safety. Such subjective conclusions come with various rationalizations to explain any incongruities in observed realities. The example of incessant product recalls illustrates this point. Amidst the subjective claims about product safety management and certification successes, the recalls do not seem to be abating. Hence this rationalization refrain: “The many outbreaks and recalls are due to the fact that we are now able to rapidly detect and report failures than ever before”. However, there is the counter argument (for example in the US) it has been reported that: “. . . most foodborne infections go undiagnosed and unreported, either because the ill person does not see a doctor, or the doctor does not make a specific diagnosis. Also, infections with some microbes, such as norovirus, are not reportable in the first place, unless they are associated with a recognized outbreak. . .” http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/facts.html. The situation is most likely to be similar with the pharmaceutical and other food and health product sectors.

Guidelines, instructions, checklists, et cetera, that must be used for ensuring product safety need to be designed with a full awareness of these possibilities: An engineered focus can be useful but it can be distracting. Guidelines for operation controls, systems examination or assessment need to be free of engineered focus that distracts from the intended goals and objectives. Guidelines must not channel the focus of expert assessors and distract them from conducting a thorough assessment because a certain number of checklist points must be covered in the written reports. Product safety system assessments are not automatically thorough and effective simply because the assessors completed and reported on all pre-determined points on a checklist. The best product safety assessment process is that which avoids the pitfalls of engineered focus and capitalizes on its merits. 

Check out the SSQA Focus

Posted By Felix Amiri
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Felix Amiri is the current Food Sector Chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection

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