Some years ago, when I ran the training program for some radiation control technicians, I ran simulated emergencies. For instance, a worker would pour simulated radioactive water into his boot, and the technicians had to correct the situation without contaminating the entire work area. We had vacuum cleaners break open, bottle shatter and bags explode, all with radiological consequences.
We ran these drills every week for a year and we kept score of people’s actions and the number of errors made. After several months, I noticed that the better people got better at responding to these contrived emergencies, the more errors they made. By the score card, we were getting worse. When we started, we might finding ten errors but as we progressed, we were finding 30 or 40 even 50 errors.
Puzzling. Upon closer review I saw we really were getting better.
For instance, if someone dropped the patient (a rubber dummy) down a flight of stairs, no drill observer would notice that he had been wearing the wrong gloves. Hence, one big error prevented people from noticing the many little errors. After months of drills, the technicians were handling the big problems correctly, which left the drill observers more time to note little errors, such as whether a person was called by his last name or if the proper numbers were on the report. We were picky, picky, picky.
Life is like that. While we strive to do better, at times we seem to be getting worse. Perhaps we now notice the little errors because we have advanced to where the little errors are the biggest things we need to worry about.
Maybe we really are getting better.