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How Hierarchical Task Analysis Can Help Organisations Achieve Operational Excellence Procedural errors cause delays, create more mistakes, and affect quality and service, too. So how can businesses refine operations to improve outcomes and consistency?

By Arthur Wilson Edited by Jason Fell

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Creating efficient ways of working and foolproof operating systems are key components of any successful organisation. But often the way leaders imagine things are done can differ from reality.

Procedural errors cause delays, create more mistakes, and affect quality and service, too. So how can businesses bridge the gap between work-as-imagined and work-as-done?

A good place to start is to undertake a task analysis, and a hierarchical task analysis in particular can help to understand and refine operations to improve outcomes and consistency.

What is a hierarchical task analysis?

Hierarchical task analysis, or HTA for short, traces back to the 1960s, born from the necessity to train personnel in the increasing cognitive demands of industries like steel and petrochemicals. As industrial processes evolved toward greater cognitive complexity, the imperative for new methods to comprehend and articulate these processes became evident.

HTA is elegantly simple yet profoundly impactful. It entails the gathering of data through diverse means such as observation, interviews, or documentation review, followed by meticulous decomposition and description of goals and sub-goals. This flexibility makes HTA methods adaptable across a myriad of industries and contexts.

HTA is useful across numerous domains, such as in healthcare where it serves as a beacon in identifying medication administration errors or crafting surgical protocols. Beyond healthcare, its utility extends to the business world – in the design and evaluation of training programs, team task analysis, workload assessment, functional allocation analysis, interface design and evaluation.

HTA is not only popular because of its versatility - it holds the potential to unlock efficiencies and insights across diverse landscapes of human endeavour. As industries continue to evolve and challenges morph into complexity, HTA is a fantastic tool in the operational arsenal of organisations to tackle those challenges head-on.

Conducting a HTA.

The data needed to conduct a successful HTA can be sourced from various places. This flexibility allows businesses to delve into the minutiae of detail, tailoring their approach to the specific needs of the task at hand. There are no strict rules surrounding the results the HTA produces. Nonetheless, while HTA provides a canvas for creativity, experts advise a structured framework of steps to achieve the best outcomes:

  1. Prepare and research: The initial phase necessitates gathering comprehensive information about the system under examination. This encompasses user needs, task intricacies, potential pain points, and pertinent data or analytics. A thorough understanding of the target audience and real-world usage of the task or system is imperative to inform the subsequent analysis effectively.
  2. Define the use case: At this stage, clarity is key as we delineate the scope of the analysis and pinpoint the specific use case to be mapped. It is essential to articulate the objectives behind the analysis, ascertain the rationale for mapping, and identify the user segment intended to engage with the experience. This delineation serves as a guiding framework, ensuring the inclusion of all pertinent steps and information throughout the analysis process.
  3. Construct the initial flow chart: Task analysis unfolds as an iterative process, particularly when grappling with intricate systems and copious amounts of data. To navigate this complexity effectively, crafting an initial draft of the flow chart proves invaluable. This preliminary rendition should encompass all requisite steps for task completion and illuminate the interplay between various components within the system.
  4. Review the diagram: The review entails a systematic breakdown (decomposition) of the main task into smaller components and organising them into a logical sequence. For easy reference, each component may be assigned a unique identifier for quick access later in the process. Crucial to this step is to structure the HTA logically, placing primary objectives at the apex and delineating smaller sub-tasks below.
  5. Validate: To ensure the accuracy of the decomposition process, it is crucial to engage stakeholders in the validation phase. Stakeholders, particularly those new to HTA methodologies, may demonstrate a propensity for shifting perspectives. To counteract this, it's important to cross-reference information from diverse sources.
  6. Iterate: Continual refinement is key to optimising HTA. Stakeholders and users alike steer and users are imperative means to meticulously review the final version, seeking out any overlooked steps or sub-goals to ensure comprehensive coverage.

How HTA is the business world's GPS for risk management.

Organisations can utilise Hierarchical Task Analysis as a systematic approach to mitigate risk by proactively identifying and addressing potential failures associated with human factors within their operational processes.

Systematic decomposition: HTA facilitates the breakdown of tasks into hierarchical steps, making complex procedures more manageable and comprehensible. This granular view enables businesses to pinpoint specific stages where errors are more likely to occur, and therefore, where risk mitigation strategies can be most effectively applied.

Tuning up training: By understanding the detailed structure of task performance, organisations can tailor their training programmes to focus on critical areas that pose the highest risk. This targeted training ensures that employees are well-equipped to perform their tasks accurately and efficiently, reducing the likelihood of errors that could lead to larger system failures.

Design and redesign with foresight: HTA can inform the design and redesign of systems and processes. By identifying potential errors in each step of a task, businesses can develop more intuitive systems that reduce the cognitive load on employees, thereby lowering the risk of human error.

Predict pitfalls with proactive precision: Businesses can anticipate possible failures and implement preventive measures. For example, if HTA reveals that a particular step in a process is prone to error due to high complexity or worker fatigue, the business can introduce checks or automate that step to prevent the error from occurring.

Enhance communication: Clear communication channels are essential for effective task completion, especially in complex operations. HTA helps outline the communication needs within and between each task level, allowing for the development of communication protocols that reduce misunderstandings and information bottlenecks.

Allocate resources: By highlighting which tasks are critical and which are prone to error, HTA enables businesses to allocate resources more effectively. High-risk areas can be bolstered with additional resources, whether that be more skilled personnel, better tools, or more time to ensure tasks are completed safely.

A compliance compass: HTA assists in the development of standard operating procedures that comply with regulatory requirements. Consistent application of these procedures minimises the risk of non-compliance and the associated legal and financial repercussions.

Optimising Human Reliability through HTA.

HTA is a critical component in enhancing the robustness of Human Reliability Assessments (HRA). By methodically deconstructing tasks into their constituent elements, HTA enables businesses to analyse the human element of operational systems with remarkable precision. As a foundational analytic framework within HRA, HTA allows for the systematic identification and examination of potential points of failure attributable to human factors. By examining tasks through a hierarchical lens, HTA facilitates a comprehensive understanding of task dependencies and the complexity of human interactions within each layer of an operation.

Through this lens, HTA systematically catalogues the potential for error at each level of task execution. It provides an empirical basis to predict the likelihood of failure, thereby informing the development of strategic interventions. This structured approach supports the mitigation of risk by designing solutions that are not only preventative but also foster increased operational efficacy and reliability.

Organisations leveraging HTA in their HRA practices are positioned to pre-emptively identify and rectify human-centric vulnerabilities within their systems. This anticipatory approach aligns with a forward-thinking business ethos, emphasising resilience and adaptability within human capital management strategies.

HTA as a catalyst for procedural evolution.

Initially, standard procedures may serve as the starting point for task analysis. However, as operational dynamics evolve and input from field experts and workers grows, HTA facilitates the modification and enhancement of these procedures. This continuous, cyclical process of review and refinement through HTA ensures that procedural documentation keeps pace with the changing landscape of industrial operations.

Arthur Wilson

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® VIP

Marketing Consultant

Arthur is a digital marketing consultant specialising in advising small businesses and startups. He works closely with brands including Workstars and is passionate about helping organisations to better engage their people and create thriving cultures.
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