March 26th, 2013

Listening: A Powerful Macroergonomic Tool

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This article is reprinted with permission from The Ergonomics Report™ Archives, where it originally appeared on December 21, 2005.

Workplace problems must be addressed in context, and the key to understanding context is careful and respectful listening. This is the signature message of Andrew Imada, Ph.D. CPE, a distinguished exponent of the art, whose ergonomics specialty is human and organizational change.

Previously a professor of Ergonomics and Safety Sciences at the University of Southern California for 19 years and now principal of A. S. Imada & Associates, Dr. Imada travels the world as a lecturer and consultant. He is one of the founders of macroergonomics, a specialty he described in a recent interview for The Ergonomics Report™ as having the potential "for enhancing the impact of traditional ergonomics by considering the organizational, social, cultural, or political context in which the technology is being applied."

Asked to explain his message, he said the most potent facilitators and inhibitors to change could lie in the context. It can explain why superior design in products is ignored in the market place, he continued, why people pay for fashion, take shortcuts and ignore safety concerns. And it explains why people can be extraordinarily productive under less-than-optimal conditions. "Our concerns and ability to maximize ergonomic criteria such as energy expenditure, distance traveled, mental workload, or system optimization are often trumped by facilitators such as being cool, being pressured to do more, jeers from peers, or other machine-systems requirements."

Examples of the phenomenon include school children wearing backpacks as low as possible, workers violating safety procedures by taking shortcuts to meet production goals and consumers choosing less user-friendly products over a better designed one. He pointed out that some people suffer musculoskeletal injuries when working in an ergonomically-designed workstation, a problem that can only be explained and addressed after a thorough examination of the context. "If the context is so powerful, how can we gain access to help us explain and understand people at work? Simply put, we can get to it by just listening.”

Listening – An Art
The art he advocates is widely-appreciated but unevenly-practiced. Spiritual individuals call it holy work. For therapists it’s a vital tool. Relationships thrive on it. An anonymous quotation about listening found on the Internet notes that "a good speaker may sometimes find himself unwanted in a group, but rarely a good listener."

And the art is the foundation of genuine charm. People see they are being taken seriously when they are listened to, a factor that makes the speaker feel good and that breaks down barriers.

At the 2005 Organizational Design and Management conference in Hawaii in June [2005], reported in The Maui News, Dr. Imada noted in a keynote speech that people "will not remember you for what you did, or what you said or how many millions of dollars you saved. They will remember you for how you made them feel."

Dr. Imada’s academic roots – he earned a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and business from the University of San Francisco and masters and doctoral degrees from The Ohio State University in industrial and organizational psychology – help explain his reverence for listening as a professional tool.

Skilled listening, he notes, reveals context. "It involves truly understanding the underlying meaning of what the speaker is telling you. … You have not just to be there, you have to respectfully be there and understand what those people are telling you about why they don’t like something, or why they don’t want to do something, or why they don’t think something will work. … Beneath there is often something personal, a fear or a concern or a prejudice … that you can tap in to if you really engage."

He recommends suspending judgment, and not trying to come up with solutions or make suggestions or provide explanations while listening. "When listening to their story, only collect the data. It will make sense later. The goal of listening is only to understand the context."

Real Life Applications
Dr. Imada offered several case histories for the interview to illustrate the ways ergonomic interventions can fail if context is disregarded.

One case involved a high volume food service company that used ergonomics to improve the efficiency of its operations. The food stands were lowered 8 inches to comply with simple ergonomic and material-handling principles. The vendors resisted the change, and the discontent was traced to woman a who was a natural leader in the group. Instead of arguing, Dr. Imada decided to get to know her, and succeeded in building rapport by finding out about her personal interests. Along the way, she confided during a conversation about something unrelated, that the reason she hated the low counters was that customers could see what she considered her big rear end when she turned around. Sometime later the vendors were offered new, wrap-around aprons and the resistance to the counters faded.

"It was compelling moment for one human to tell another about a fear or shame that she was experiencing because of work," said Dr. Imada. "The ultimate solution to this problem had little to do with ergonomic redesign."

A similar leadership issue obstructed ergonomic changes at a petroleum delivery operation, he said. Each truck carried four hoses on a tray, and they were used to load and offload the product from twice to 14 times a day. The fitting for the hose weighed approximately 14 pounds, and the operation required workers to raise it above their shoulders. In the worst case, the tray was 55 inches high. The workers were taught simple ergonomic principles for reaching, lifting, exertion and stress on body parts. And a hose tray was designed and implemented, using a modified participatory strategy. Despite the ergonomic advantages, many of the drivers reported disliking the new design.

After time spent with delivery workers, supervisors and mechanics it was clear that "liking or disliking the design could be predicted by where people worked," Dr. Imada said. "Generally the people in a particular location liked the design while most of the people (who) disliked the design worked in another location. At first, it appeared that there might be something about the delivery areas that caused the opinions. But that hypothesis was not confirmed. This was a classic Hawthorne-type discovery," he noted. "Group membership, informal leadership, and group pressure were the causes of the opinions, not the design itself."

The solution? He gathered a focus group of these opinion leaders from the most dissatisfied work centers. The group considered the complaints and concerns of the users. Small modifications were made to the design. Additionally, the results of this group’s efforts were communicated to all the drivers and managers. The workers accepted this design much more readily after this process.

Dignity
In his speech at the Hawaii conference Dr. Imada recommended "listening as if you are in the presence of a great teacher," even to the lowest status worker on the shop floor … "People deserve respect, they deserve dignity."

A case at a produce cannery implicated lack of respect for workers in problems at the plant. Women were confronted with belts full of fruit that had been or were about to be cooked, said Dr. Imada. Their job was sorting out the imperfections. "Naturally, repetitive motion injuries were common and were now becoming a problem. The consultant was brought in as part of a team to reduce these cumulative trauma injuries that were now starting to cost the company lots of money."

To explain his frustrations about injuries that cost, on average, $16,000 per hand, the supervisor beckoned one of the workers, a woman in her thirties wearing a white hair net over dark hair. He pulled her into an alcove to escape the ambient din and said, ‘Show the man your hands.’ According to Dr. Imada, she sheepishly pulled up both sleeves of her blue plaid flannel shirt and turned over her hands to expose two scars from carpal tunnel surgery. "She held her arms there for a moment but never made eye contact." He said he realized the woman had been robbed of her dignity for that moment, and it was probably the same story throughout the day.

The Soft Approach
Despite the evidence that effective listening and deductions about the context can help ergonomic interventions stick, Dr. Imada says it is still hard work convincing people because it is "the soft stuff in business." He quoted Tapas Sen, a man he described as an admired friend who was once the head of Quality of Worklife at AT&T: "There is the hard stuff – the business stuff – and the soft stuff. And the soft stuff is the hard stuff." This is the most difficult thing to convince people, according to Dr. Imada. "The soft-headed things are what really get in the way. If you look at the stories, that’s really why business can’t make progress because of little things like that. You really have to get to those truths or those fears or what people actually experience, and to me that’s the context that we work in."

He relies on his relationship with clients for his ability to guide them to his methods. "I’ve been in these companies forever, so I’m such a known quantity. People actually think I’m an employee. They’re asking me when I’m going to retire, and I don’t even actually work there. They ask ‘what’s your company email?’ and I say I don’t have one. ‘You don’t have one?’ … they know that I walk around and I can understand things, and I can help them by giving them a different perspective."

Again quoting Tapas Sen, Dr. Imada said that when you listen to people, you can’t just say, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Gotcha!’ You really have to listen to what they are saying and try to improve their lot in life … and that is what our business is really about."

The good news is that everyone wants to tell his or her story to you if you ask, and listen respectfully and deeply, said Dr. Imada. "If we listen as well as we have been trained as scientists to collect other data, people will tell us their story."

Sources: Dr. Andrew Imada, The Maui News



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