The Human Factor Never Goes Away Completely

Even when you automate tasks and use RFID to identify an object involved in that task, things can still go wrong.
Published: February 16, 2011

I remember many years ago, when I was a teenager, my father was having some problems with his car. He brought it to a mechanic, who tuned it up using a computerized diagnostic and maintenance tool. My dad, who was a mathematics teacher and taught computer science in adult education, was unsatisfied with the result, as the car was still sluggish. “The engine is still not right,” my father told me.

“Everything is done by computer now,” the mechanic responded. “It has to be right!”

My father smiled at him. “I know a little about computers,” he stated. “If the computer is programmed wrong, then the analysis will be wrong, won’t it?”

I don’t think my father ever got any satisfaction, but I was thinking of this story recently when one of my staff members ordered a replacement battery for a Hewlett-Packard laptop. The battery had an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) transponder affixed to it—but it was the wrong battery.

How does this happen? Easy. Upon receiving the call for a new battery, tech support asked which laptop model it was. The person on the phone might have written down the wrong model number, or perhaps the wrong battery, for that model. The item was picked and the RFID tag was probably read to confirm the item listed was picked, and inventory was likely decremented properly when it was shipped. The problem was human error.

It isn’t yet possible to completely eliminate human error. People might think they heard laptop model 820C, when the customer actually said 802B. Someone could make an error and put the wrong tag on an item. And computer operators, as my father pointed out, sometimes make mistakes in their programs.

Good system design can provide checks to make sure employees pick the right item, and training can help reduce the number of human errors. But in the end, perfection is probably unattainable. People, after all, are only human.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.