Human-Centric Complex Problems, and How to Solve Them.

In 1981, I entered the US Navy’s Nuclear Power Officer Candidate Program while I was still in college. After graduating with an Engineering degree from the University of Miami, I embarked on nearly two additional years of education that included nine months of Navy training and 12 months of Masters’ level courses in Nuclear Engineering and hands-on training on nuclear reactors. We were trained on the science and math behind nuclear fission, as well as the construction, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors.

By the time I left the Navy in 1987, I had trained onboard three ballistic missile submarines and was certified as a reactor supervisor and as an Officer of the Deck. A nuclear submarine makes for an excellent classroom! But looking back, I realize that the vast majority of problems that we faced were very different than the ones that we explicitly trained for - those that could be solved using math or any of the sciences such as Nuclear Physics, Thermodynamics or Fluid Mechanics. Finding solutions to these problems required skills we did not have. But none of us recognized that at the time.

It turns out that there is a whole universe of problems that cannot be solved by math and science alone, and our years of formal and technical education did not teach us the skills we needed to solve those problems.

It turns out that these other kinds of problems have a key variable in common: a variable that adds a layer of complexity and creates a multitude of unpredictable outcomes. That variable is human behavior, and I call these problems “human-centric problems."

When we insert humans into the mix, it changes everything. The way humans interact with each other and across organizations, how we use tools, materials and equipment, how well we abide by laws, rules and regulations, and in general, how we engage with the world around us, is highly unpredictable and nearly impossible to model using formulas or equations. The vast majority of human-centric problems fall under the following categories:

Human Behavior/Performance:

Many problems are caused by human error. In the commercial nuclear industry, studies show that approximately 80% of all events involves a human factor. To solve these problems requires an understanding of why humans behave the way they do, particularly what drives their “at-risk” behaviors. In complex problem-solving efforts, we have to find the reasons why the person behaved the way they did, leading up to the mistake or the at-risk-behavior. In too many cases we simply blame the person and believe that by coaching (or firing) them, these problems or mistakes will not recur. This is largely untrue. What makes it even more difficult is that the same person can behave entirely differently on different days. There are other environmental and external factors that have to be considered under a complex problem-solving model.

Equipment Failures:

This category includes how humans interface with tools, materials and equipment that we routinely use. These components are designed, manufactured, installed, operated and maintained by humans. How humans interact with these tools, materials and equipment must be evaluated under our complex problem-solving methodology to determine how (or if) people themselves are contributing to the problems. When equipment fails, it is not enough to determine the failure modes; we must also investigate why those failure modes existed, which often brings us back to a human interface.

Organizational and Programmatic Breakdowns:

We are governed by many laws, rules and regulations, and these laws are implemented through policies, programs and procedures at the organizational level. They define the parameters for a civilized society (such as how to drive), how companies should do business, and the social norms for what is considered acceptable behavior. Some of the deepest-seated problems in many organizations fall under this category. They lie dormant as latent weaknesses and can cause recurring problems for years. When investigating a complex problem, we must also have a process to identify latent weaknesses in programs, policies and procedures.

Solving human-centric problems require a different set of skills; critical thinking, complex problem solving and root cause analysis. However, as I discovered when I entered the nuclear submarine work force, these skills and their practical application are not traditionally taught in mainstream education systems.

Mastering the skills for solving complex, human-centric problems can dramatically improve the world around us.

Mastering and applying these skills can help us improve performance in our workplace by eliminating a vast number of latent weaknesses that threaten human life, take the staff away from mission critical tasks, and cost organizations money and resources. Developing these skills to the highest levels can help solve some of society's "wicked" problems.

To learn more about how to solve complex, human-centric problems, visit us at:

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