Good CAPAs require good investigations – driving out human error from the work place

September 4th, 2015 by

Do you have deviations that just won’t go away?  Do they disappear for a couple of months only to reappear a few months later stronger than ever?  Have you ever wondered why?

I won’t try to say that there is one cause for this but one that I have found continuously is Human Error as a major cause of the problem.  The obvious CAPA for this observation is to retrain the operator and rewrite the SOP.  I have seen it often in companies.

When I go in to audit the QMS, this is one area I look for first.  I look at the CAPAs and tally up the retrain operator and the rewrite SOP ones and if I find it happens more than 10% of the time, I know where to focus.  Investigations are not thorough or in depth.

On a recent visit to a client, they had just exited from a grueling inspection by an agency with a total of 53 observations.  They had developed their responses which are really CAPAs in any other language.  There were a total of 135 CAPAs and 55% were “retrain operator” or “rewrite SOP”.  I asked the person in charge of getting the responses back and asked whether he thought it would correct the problem.  His reply was an honest “No, many of these problems we’ve seen before and tried that and it never works”.  So, I ask him why are you doing it again, remembering Einstein’s quote “insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result”.  At least I think it’s Einstein.

I then asked, “Why did you do this when you know it will not work?”  The answer was a chilling “because the regulators will accept it and it will allow me to get back to making product!”  I wanted to say “Yes, in the same broken way as before”.

After talking with other people at the plant it became clear that their investigation skills and tools were deficient.  They could get to the human error point.  They recognized that somebody had made an error but they lacked the tools to investigate further as to why it occurred.  Was it a system that was defective, were the operators overloaded with work, were the work stations organized appropriately?

Very rarely is Human Error the root cause but rather Human Error is the symptom of things not functioning properly. It is often the result of a deficiency elsewhere.  No other industry accepts human error just our pharmaceutical one.

There are four main ways that that things fail and manifest as human errors. There has been plenty of research in this area but not in pharmaceuticals.

  1. Culture – the culture allowing or encouraging people to not follow procedures. Initially it may be innocent. “I know the procedure is wrong, but we cannot change it”. “I know it says that, but this short cut will get you there quicker and we have a goal to get on the shift” – implying doing it by the rules won’t let you get there on time. This often occurs in cultures that are volume driven. “Get the product out the door at all costs”. One company even had a goal of “Speed over perfection”. That was a difficult one to puzzle out.
  2. Systems – the systems in place just don’t work. The poor operator just can’t get it to work based on the equipment, layout, QMS in place. This can be a change control process that is no longer serving the plant, a deviation process that everybody avoids, a CAPA process that is viewed as a encumbrance. The systems are viewed as punishment. Gone has the goal that the systems are tools to help you stay on top of your processes. The goal of everybody is to move the paper to the next person as quickly as possible. These systems are often put in place at the Corporate level or by management without asking the practitioners how it should be done. The same occurs in lay out of equipment and processes. They are not designed with the user in mind but often by a corporate engineer in central headquarters. Often operators have to take readings, remember them and go to the other end of the room or even next door to log the data into the permanent record.  This also breeds scrap paper use for data transcription.
  3. Procedures – this is where the procedures, batch records are wrong. It is often because they were not written by users but rather other bodies.                                                                                                            In one case I came across batch records being filled out and there appeared to be lots of   extraneous comments.     I asked about them and queried why.  “The batch records are wrong” was the response.  “Why don’t you change them?” I questioned.  “We can’t. We are not allowed to “ was the answer.  “Why can’t you?”, I asked. “Because Process Science owns them. They write them for us”  “If they write them, do they have the same equipment as you operating at a similar scale”.  “No”.     No wonder they are wrong. Nobody consulted the actual people operating the equipment.
  4. People – which brings us to the people. They make mistakes for many reasons. The reasons are many and varied. It could be that the training was inadequate. Yes they know what to do but not why. They do not understand the criticality of the key steps. They don’t know why it must be done this way. They are rushed and in the rush they revert to the old way.

As you read through the examples above, you will see a lot of similarity and overlap and that is because, it is rarely only one of the above that fails.  It actually starts at the management level with culture.  They set the tone that creates the systems, procedures and people to fail.

So how can you detect that you have a culture problem?  A systems problem?  Poor procedures? Or people prone to human errors?

You know you have problem or potentially one if you can say yes to any of the following:

Culture Problems include

  • Silos with poor communication between
  • Box checking mentality
  • Firefighting all day and everyday
  • Deadlines that are never met
  • Deviations are considered bad and people are punished
  • A blame culture that never learns from mistakes
  • People unwilling to raise the alarm for fear of punishment
  • Heavy reliance on final check – QA will catch it
  • Metrics that drive the wrong behaviour

System problems are evident by these

  • Congestion on the plant floor
  • Poor work flows
  • Physical conditions not adequate – lighting, temperature, humidity
  • Unreliable equipment that breaks down
  • Poor ergonomics of operators
  • Electronic systems that are no longer tools serving the worker
  • People avoiding using e-systems
  • Don’t know the cost of non-conformance
  • User not involved in design

Procedure problems are exemplified by

  • Long complex SOPs – they read like War and Peace
  • Too many double or even triple checks
  • SOPs written to satisfy auditors or regulators not for operators
  • CAPAs never working
  • All investigations / CAPAs must be complete in 30 days
  • Everything given equal importance

Which brings us to People

  • No time for breaks
  • Workers operating on permanent overtime
  • Multitasking that does not work
  • Reliance on memory because documents and records aren’t where the work is
  • Training explains the how but not the why. No understanding of the consequences of the procedure
  • Too many distractions
  • Training in a class room versus where the job is done

Of course this is not a comprehensive list but you get the picture!!

To get rid of all these types of problem requires both management and workers to take responsibility.  We must move to a culture exemplified by

  1. Create a positive attitude to human error. People make mistakes because the systems supporting them fail them. The error is pointing out an opportunity for improvement.
  2. Create a blame free culture. We must have a freedom to speak out where we see an issue and focus on the event and not who did it. Ask the question “what went wrong?” rather than “what did you do wrong?”
  3. Drive out complexity. Complexity is the enemy, it makes SOPs unworkable and an unworkable SOP translates to error. Reward simple procedures.
  4. Use user centered design. Get the workers involved in writing SOP, Batch Records, designing equipment and process layout. You will create ownership and it will be right.
  5. Introduce safeguards into processes, equipment. The operator knows what can go wrong, what they do under stress. Ask for their advice.
  6. Have a rapid reporting system. A system that responds in hours, not days, week or never.
  7. Seek out and remove risk. The workforce is your best friend to identify what or could go wrong. They see it every day.
  8. Create education and not training programs. Education explains how and what but also why it is done this way. It includes what can go wrong if steps are done wrong. Tells you what the critical steps are and why the new is better than the old.
  9. Management must assign roles and responsibilities and hold people accountable. Ownership and pride in the job well done ensues.

The road is a long one fraught with challenges but as my father used to wisely tell me “Knowing you have a problem is 50% of the way to solving it”.  How true!!!!

2 thoughts on “Good CAPAs require good investigations – driving out human error from the work place

  1. Joe Metro on said:

    Peter, your article really reaches the heart of what I’ve experienced at the company’s I’ve audited, and worked for. I found your examples explaining why human error is not THE root cause to be spot on. You can’t “fix” man, but you can provide the tools and environment to minimize mistakes. Seldom do my RC’s end with “man” because something influenced or hid from him to result in a systemic failure. I would like to use several of your expamples during my RC in house training, if you do not mind.
    Best regards,

    • Joe, Good to hear from you. You can use the examples listed but please reference the source ie. my blog URL. Good luck

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