Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of operations management knows that production errors can be costly—and that those costs increase significantly the further up the value chain they travel.
Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, a full-service financial services company based in Indianapolis, is no exception. "Say that we make an error in payment processing by transposing numbers," says Lisa Mercer, a corporate learning and development associate at Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance. "Now, we have a customer satisfaction issue because a client is upset with us for having overpaid. We also have several other issues. A customer service representative now has to complete paperwork and send it to the home office requesting that a customer credit be issued. When that happens, we also incur costs associated with cash disbursement research, check reissuance, and printing and mailing a check. And when you look at the way our company is structured, often once someone makes a data entry error, she isn't the one who can correct it. To fix just one error usually requires the involvement of many, many people—and the more hands necessary to fix an error, the more time and money it requires."
It is at this point that most companies attempting to eradicate data entry errors at their source make the mistaken assumption that such errors are nothing more than typos. "In many companies, if members of the quality area find a mistake, they'll report it to the employee's manager," says Evelyn Mareth, president of The Accuracy Company LLC in Beaverton, OR. "If the problem persists, the manager typically will do one of two things: She'll either send the employee to a keyboarding class in an attempt to improve his typing skills, or she'll simply tell him to 'be more careful in the future.'"
Neither option represents an adequate solution, however, says Mareth, "because the employee doesn't have anything in his toolbox to help him avoid the error in the future. He doesn't need keyboarding help; he needs tools to learn how to mentally process data and accurately transfer it from one medium (such as a fax or a printout) to another (such as a computer database)."
Mareth explains that the "universe" of data can be divided into two parts. "First, there are familiar data that have a pattern and are easy to work with, such as phone numbers and Social Security numbers. Then, there are data without any pattern whatsoever—comprising one character after another in a long string." The problem, she says, is that no one ever teaches students or workers how to read and transfer such data properly. "We all learn number recognition in school, but in all one's years of education, no one ever says, 'Here is a 12-digit number. Let's figure out how to read it correctly from a transference standpoint.'"
Mareth became determined to provide organizations with the tools to do just that several years ago, when she was living in Sweden and was approached by a bank manager who was interested in applying the principles of speed reading (which Mareth was teaching at the time) to helping bank personnel process numerical data more quickly and accurately. Soon thereafter, she began developing a highly specialized training program to teach accuracy and speed when working with numbers and other data, regardless of one's industry or specific task. The resultant course, called "Accurate Data Transfer," is geared toward employees in all industries who read, transfer, check, and compare data as part of their jobs—and focuses, primarily, on what Mareth calls the "three Cs" of accuracy: concentration, clustering, and checking.
Mastering the Three Cs
Concentration, or "super concentration," as it is referred to in the course, is the "foundation of accuracy—the kind of focus you need to have in an office where everything is going on around you," says Mareth. Achieving such focus can be especially difficult in the modern working environment, she notes, where many professionals work in vast, open spaces with thin cubicle walls serving as their only bulwark against noise and other interruptions. "Add conference room doors being left open, co-workers talking and playing music nearby, and countless other distractions to the picture, and maintaining super concentration can be challenging for most people," she says. To help workers combat such interruptions, the course teaches various techniques trainees can use on an individual level, such as segmenting work requiring intense concentration into 15- to 20-minute increments and hanging "do not disturb" signs near their workspace whenever they are engaged in a task that requires high levels of concentration to complete.
A second technique, called clustering, helps trainees to expand the amount of data they can see at any one time by teaching them how to group long strings of unrelated numbers into three-digit clusters. In an exercise called "Developing Number Span," for example, timed PowerPoint slides advance automatically. The first slide features a simple combination of three-digit numbers that appears briefly on the screen. Trainees are expected to write down the three numbers quickly—before the subsequent slide appears and additional digits are added to the string. "For most students, working with six digits at a time is challenging," says Mareth. "But on the second day of class, after reviewing the concepts and practicing over and over again, I put a 15-digit slide up—and everyone is able to do it."
The third "c" covered in the course hones employees' ability to detect and "correct" their own errors over time. "Typically, when an error is discovered, we feel stupid for having made the error, so we quickly correct it, and it's over," says Mareth. "The problem is that nothing is learned, which means the error is bound to occur again." To underscore the importance of proactively identifying each error's root cause, trainees who take the course are expected to correct their own work after each practice exercise. They also are asked to maintain an error log, which allows them to continually analyze their error trends over time.
These and other techniques taught in the course are paying off in a big way for clients in several industries, many of which report that employees are able to reduce their error rate by 50 percent and increase their speed by 7 percent, on average, as measured by pre- and post-course tests.
After internal audit results repeatedly indicated that accuracy levels were falling below Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance's target levels, for example, the company adopted the Accurate Data Transfer course in 2007, and immediately rolled it out to more than 100 employees in the company's life services division. According to Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Learning and Development Specialist Cheryl Alfred, the average accuracy rate for the division overall previously ranged between 90 and 92 percent. Post-training, it shot up to 96 percent.
The course's emphasis on "super concentration" also helped the division's managers to "think outside of the box" regarding other factors that might be negatively impacting workers' accuracy, says Mercer. "It opened their eyes to the need to reduce environmental distractions in the workplace. After the course, for example, they looked around and realized workers tended to congregate near a copy machine that was sitting right in the middle of a busy production area, and that the noise and the traffic were adversely impacting the concentration ability of those whose work stations were located in the vicinity." Soon thereafter, the machine was moved to another area.
Based on these successes, Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance since has delivered the course to several other divisions within the organization. It also adopted two other courses from The Accuracy Company, including "Accurate Data Transfer Train-the-Trainer," which certifies internal Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance employees to teach in-house sessions of the Accurate Data Transfer course themselves, and "Coaching for Accuracy," which provides managers with tools to reinforce Accurate Data Transfer techniques on the job and to coach employees who have attended the course toward achieving even higher levels of productivity and accuracy.
These and other efforts led to a 56 percent increase in accuracy, on average, across the entire enterprise during the initial year of the courses' rollout, as measured by pre- and post-course tests. Most importantly, say both Alfred and Mercer, employees throughout the organization have enthusiastically embraced the techniques of the course, as well as its underlying philosophy. "Our life division employees work in a noisy area where there are many, many cubes per square foot and people are kind of packed in like pickles," says Alfred. "In the beginning, Evelyn provided our trainees with a number of tips and takeaways, including a sign that reads, 'Shh. Super concentration.' To be honest, I wasn't sure how well any of it would go over. But people have posted those signs all over the place. In fact, 'super concentration' is becoming one of the biggest buzz words around here."
• Don't make the mistaken assumption that accuracy errors are nothing more than typos.
• Provide learners with tools to learn how to mentally process data and accurately transfer it from one medium (such as a fax or a printout) to another (such as a computer database).
• Focus on the "three Cs" of accuracy: concentration (segment work requiring intense concentration into 15- to 20-minute increments and hang "do not disturb" signs near employees engaged in a task that requires high levels of concentration to complete), clustering (teach learners to group long strings of unrelated numbers into three-digit clusters), and checking (have learners correct their own work after each practice exercise and maintain an error log so they can analyze their error trends over time).