The Human Factor: Why Does Derek Suck at Data Entry?

Setting people up for failure

Alex Counihan
4 min readAug 2, 2021


Photo by Karen Arnold from Public Domain Pictures

Meet Derek. He’s a junior supervisor that has two specific jobs:

  1. To check technicians have signed their paperwork correctly
  2. To input flight data from a hard copy sheet into the digital management system

He’s good at the first part, but really sucks at the second part. Turns out it wasn’t the first time management has noticed this, and despite multiple ‘corrective training’ sessions he was still making errors. So why do we care?

These errors meant:

  • Maintenance was being carried out too early, wasting maintenance hours on tasks that didn’t need doing
  • Some maintenance was being carried out too late, which created safety issues as aircraft were flying without checks being carried out
  • A significant amount of time was spent by senior supervisors identifying and correcting these errors

So let’s find out what was going on with Derek and his Data Entry.

Is Derek just incompetent?

It turns out Derek was very enthusiastic and consistently went above and beyond his role to assist his partner, who had to deal with pilots taking custody of aircraft, engineers requesting equipment for use on the flight line and aircraft movements. So his motivation wasn’t lacking.

What about his colleague who manned the same office?

Turns out Wilson, the Line Supervisor, spent more time out of the office than in. Partly because he was being used by management incorrectly to do engineering work and the amount of time spent moving aircraft covered the majority of his day, especially during busy periods. So when pilots turn up to see Wilson to take custody of their aircraft, or the engineers turn up to get equipment they find Derek instead, who is always happy to help and cover for his colleague.

How difficult was the Data Entry?

Derek had to look through 45 columns, then type them into a computer. While this doesn’t seem particularly taxing, the columns were in a completely different order to the Frontend he had to type them in, making the basic task more difficult as he would have to go back and forth through the maintenance documentation, increasing the chances of him losing his place or entering the data into the wrong field.

Observing the problem in real time

I took 30 minutes under the guise of using the spare terminal in the office to see exactly what was happening. During this time I didn’t see Wilson once, as he was moving aircraft to and from the hangar. The consequence of this is that Derek was interrupted 18 times. This was a major factor as while carrying out a task where it’s easy to lose your place he was up and down from his terminal dealing with the people Wilson should’ve been dealing with.

So let’s define the problem.

Derek was carrying out a poorly optimised task, which took about 10 minutes. Because his colleague wasn’t available to deal with people that came to the office for legitimate reasons, Derek took it upon himself to assist them. This meant he was starting and stopping a task which was already easy to lose his place, causing him to enter incorrect data, increasing time wastage and negatively affecting safety.

So how the hell could we expect Derek to succeed? He has to do a tedious task accurately while getting interrupted every minute or two.

Derek had been set up to fail. It was guaranteed by the procedures in place by management, who had no idea of the realities of the jobs.

So how do we fix this problem?

There was too much work and not enough people. Wilson couldn’t stay in the office to deal with people and despite a massive notice on the door stating Derek wasn’t to be interrupted, the majority of visitors who outranked him ignored the notice and had him carry out Wilson’s task.

After much pushback from management we eventually got a senior supervisor to act as the office manager. He dealt with visitors and protected Derek from being interrupted.

Subsequently errors significantly dropped, and the resulting saved maintenance hours more than paid for a senior supervisor in the office.

So what’s the takeaway from this experience?

People generally don’t turn up to work intending on doing a bad job. By taking the time to understand the problems they face you can give them to tools to succeed. And even though on paper it looked like we were spending more money to do the same amount of work, we actually saved time and money by allowing Derek to do his job properly.



Alex Counihan

Leader, Maritime Aerospace Engineer and Data Scientist. Connect with me on LinkedIn at