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27 Complexity in Ergonomics

Matthias Gbel

Introduction

Complexity is widely seen as an emerging phenomenon of an increasingly engineered and networked society. This obviously includes work life and, hence, ergonomics issues as well. However, the complexity phenomenon seems to be inherent to all ergonomics issues. This again would require consideration of complexity as a fundamental principle for ergonomics. Before discussing this matter further, we need to clarify what the term complexity means. It has its root in the original Latin word complexus which signifies entwined or twisted together. A complex is thus a set of two or more joined components that are difficult to separate because of their interaction. As a consequence the components of a complex cannot be separated without destroying the entity (HEYLIGHEN 1997). One would consider a system more complex if more parts and connections (relationships) are involved. Complexity is thus neither complete disorder (because of the ordered structure and, in principle, reliable reaction) nor complete order (that would allow description using traditional deterministic methods). This situation at the edge of order and chaos (WALDROP 1992) explains why complexity has turned out to be very difficult to define and all the definitions that have been proposed fall short in one respect or another. Stating that complexity is no complete disorder, one should ideally be able to describe a complex system by a sufficiently large number of variables. However, as a decomposition into separate subsystems (expressed by linked polynomials) is not feasible (this would be the case only for complicated systems), an empirical analysis of a complex system is likely to be impractical due to the large number of cases and conditions to be studied and due to the initial value problem of systems with memory effect (feedback). This accounts for the frequent connotation of complexity with difficult. Depending on its characteristics and the conditions of operation, a complex system can be approximately characterised by simplifying rules on a larger scale, or show unexpected reactions.
C.M. Schlick (ed.), Industrial Engineering and Ergonomics, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-01293-8_27, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

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Coming back to the ergonomics context (see Fig. 1 of the editorial), it sounds comprehensive to classify work systems on a rather macroscopic level as complex. This is due to the large number of social instances involved and due to the inner complexity of any role playing instance in work life. However, the complexity attribute is also valid at lower, rather microscopic levels. This is due to the fact that any conscious human reaction is bi-directionally linked to an individual learning process: Any movement is affected by previous motor learning, as well as by the whole cascade of individual and social experiences. Furthermore, any voluntary reaction or execution of a movement affects the individuals experience on an endogenous and an exogenous level. Those constituents of our personality validate the complexity attribute of any system that involves actively performing humans. Some further characteristics underpin the complex behaviour of a work system involving humans, for example: Reaction delays immanent to humans, ranging from milli-seconds (reflex arc) to decades (ageing, occupational diseases); Non-monotonous performance characteristics of humans that follow an inverted U-characteristics for most parameters; Different response characteristics of humans to superimposed stresses (Luczak 1982); Individual interests affect human behaviour and, hence, task execution. Widening the scope, one might ask the question what implications the complexity attribute has on theory and application of ergonomics. First, it complicates or even disables a consistent analysis, and, as a consequence, establishment of a thorough ergonomics theory. Apart from the fact that ergonomics is multidisciplinary in nature and, thus, makes use of a widespread range of methods and approaches, the conceptual and methodological base of ergonomics is still very fragmented and most models are incompatible to each other in the sense that they cannot be applied with a consistent dataset or they do not deliver a consistent output. This is not due to a failure of ergonomics researchers (if we cannot develop general laws we are not scientists and may as well go out of business, MEISTER 1995 in WILSON 2000) but an inherent consequence of the complexity argument: As a work system is complex, one can indeed separate the different parts of it but one may not dissolve all the effective interactions. One would have to study each system on its own, and still face the challenge of its complex behaviour. The only practical option of a simplified consideration has the consequence that it is incomplete in terms of scientific reasoning and thus needs the introduction of additional expertise to estimate those aspects which may have an impact but were not covered by scientific reasoning. This again has important consequences, amongst others, on: ethics: how can the consideration of human needs be assured and how can equity in treatment of human rights be guaranteed (LUCZAK 1997b)?

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application of ergonomics: how to develop reliable methods that deliver similar results independent from the conducting ergonomist and her/his methodological estimates? design: how to develop design outcomes on incomplete (explicit or implicit) models of a work system or a human-machine system? How to minimise the following trial-and-error cycles in the development process? Such considerations motivated different authors (e.g. MORAY 1994, MEISTER 2000, WILSON 2000) to argue whether ergonomics is a science or an art. According to the aforementioned considerations it has to be both at the same time, and this again is a conceptual challenge.

Dealing with Complexity in Ergonomics

On a practical level complexity can only be mastered by simplification or reduction to what factors of the complex system can be controlled. However, one must not consider all other factors as non-existent (although this is a very human reaction), because they will have an effect whether or not they can be accessed.

Requirement analysis

Evaluation

User requirem. specification Prototype design

Fig. 27.1: User centred design process according to EN ISO 13407

Projects dealing with complex issues are thus mostly structured as iterative feedback circles (Fig. 27.1). This allows introduction of expertise and correction of results if it turns out that they do not fulfil the expectations. However, such a strategy might be very time-consuming and costly if numerous iteration cycles are required, and yet its end is hardly predictable. This is particularly the case for ergonomics applications that do not allow progression from a general to a detailed level due to their complexity. BOENISCH et al. (2004) for example described the design process for an anaesthetics machine using 15 iteration cycles just for the conceptual level.

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For real work systems the practical problem arises that any (test-wise) implementation in the real work system requires an extensive change management process, and, having humans in the role of guinea pigs during iteration cycles, may raise ethical concerns. On a conceptual level real work systems do have to consider management activities in addition to straightforward execution processes. This extends the scope of design: regulation options might be considered during design or they might be assigned to the managers for handling within the work system. In both extreme cases such a work system would be either strictly organised or it would only assign authorities and leave all procedural planning to the managers. Coming back to the complexity problem, what are the methodological requirements that support ergonomists? In an ideal case one would look for a consistent ergonomics model that dissolves the complexity problem (LUCZAK et al. 1986, SINCLAIR 2007). Realising that this is not feasible to date, an approach to qualitatively integrate as many aspects of complexity as possible would however help to manage the complexity problem by explaining its phenomena. Because of the structural link this encompasses the analysis problem and, consequently, the design problem as well (general and developmental ergonomics according to MEISTER 2000).

Ergonomics Extensions to the System Theory

The following paragraphs discuss some suggestions on how to expand the system theory to allow further consideration of human characteristics, to explain complex system responses and to structure the design process. Although those different modules (or fragments) mostly relate to well-known phenomena it is the purpose of this setting to enable an unrestricted combination of all principles. Due to space limitations only a selection of principles is discussed here. 3.1 Five Dimensions to Define a Work System

The description as a work system (Fig. 27.2) is an elementary (object based) approach. In a more general form human and technical system elements are displayed as basic elements of a socio-technical system (PASMORE 1988, ZINK 1997, ULICH 1994) or as an extended framework for humans, technology and organization in interaction (EKLUND 2003).

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Work object Tool Worker Environment

Task

Fig. 27.2: Work system model (according to LUCZAK 1997a, p. 13)

A work system consists of elements and relationships. If a physical representation is assumed, elements can be identified as objects while relationships are interactions (effects and reactions). Furthermore, the localization (spatial representation) of the objects as well as the sequence (time representation) has to be considered. Interactions result in the change of the state of the interacting system elements. Therefore, at least five dimensions are necessary for a comprehensive description of a work system: Elements (structures, resources, etc.) Interactions (tasks, actions, processes, etc.) States (aims, results, effects, etc.) Sequences (order, time, etc.) Localization (position, orientation, etc.)

Each dimension is represented by a number of factors or parameters. The dimensions mentioned are relevant for the planning as well as for the execution of tasks. Common models and representations mostly contain two to three of the dimensions mentioned, e.g. Flow charts: interactions & sequences, Technical drawings: elements & location, Block diagrams: elements & interactions. This simplification enables an overview. A representation containing five dimensions each with several parameters cannot be displayed easily. However, the reduction of a smaller number of dimensions assumes independence from the other (not displayed) dimensions and therefore must have a limited scope of validity for which independence can be assumed for a larger extend.

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3.2

Representation as an Open Hierarchical System

Work systems have to be considered as open systems as they are subsystems of a wider system company and society context (EMERY 1959). In order to allow a description of such a system without being able to describe the whole system (as it is required for open systems) a hierarchical structure using similar techniques for all hierarchical levels, thus a recursive (fractal) system concept is required. Hierarchically structuring systems for ergonomics were, among others, proposed by LUCZAK et al. (1986), GREY et al. (1987) and, considering the different level of regulations of human actions, by OESTERREICH (1984). 3.3 State Variation of System Elements

Interactions (relations between system elements) result in changes of the state of involved system elements via reflexive feedback. Beside feedback that is caused directly by the interaction (e.g. change of position of tool and hand during a task), additional changes of the state may occur in the form of indirect changes like side effects or resulting structural changes (e.g. muscular fatigue while holding the tool). Typically, these are effects of strain or fatigue, as well as changes in the activity level, training or learning. Furthermore, changes of state due to interaction with the environment have to be considered (e.g. heat radiation). Such state variations are explicitly important as they may influence the behaviour of system elements on the level of: Performance characteristics and mode of task execution (e.g. changing of the body posture of the operator due to muscular fatigue), Action planning, in terms of the anticipation of changed performance characteristics (e.g. scheduling of rest brakes or job rotation), or State of hierarchically higher system elements (e.g. impact on work group or division). In addition, for work design it has to be considered that indirect changes of system element states normally occur with time delay. This can last from minutes to years (e.g. motor skills, impairment due to long-term exposure). 3.4 Behavioral Characteristics of System Elements

A system element can behave in three different ways (see Fig. 27.3) schematically (independent of the element state), algorithmically (dependent on state or conditions), or as active problem solver (generation of new solutions).

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(A)
Input Output

(C)

Input

Analysis

(B)
Input Output

Synthesis Action
Output

Evaluation

Fig. 27.3: Characteristics of system element behaviour: (A) schematic, (B) algorithmic, (C) problem solving

Schematic behaviour (independent of the element state) causes a constant relation between input and output of the elements, as e.g. in a muscle. Typically, this can be characterized by a response curve or a field of response curves. Algorithmic behaviour (dependent on the element state) is characterized by a variable relationship between input and output. The relationship varies depending on one or more internal or external measure or element states. Behaviour like this is typical for the application of checklists or the work of software programs. A system element that behaves in a problem solving manner is able to actively generate (new) solutions. A relationship between input and output exists only due to the fact that the element generates an output that results in a change of the system element state of the work object in a way that corresponds to the set task as perfectly as possible. Generally, in work systems in which the task leaves structural options, i.e. in which the task execution is not completely determined, at least one problem solving element is necessary to transform the task into actions with the objective of fulfilling the task. Problem solving behaviour is associated mostly with human behaviour; however all three types of characteristics can be represented by human as well as by technical system elements. Human behaviour can be restricted to schematic or algorithmic behaviour by corresponding task instructions, and the relative task complexity can be reduced with experience or training by incorporating algorithmic or schematic behaviour strategies (RASMUSSEN 1976, HUNT & ROUSE 1984, ROUSE 1981). Available time does not play a role for schematic and algorithmic behaviour (as long as time allocation does allow for the task to be processed), but may have a crucial impact on the output of problem solving (WICKENS 1984, HOLLNAGEL 2002). The differentiation of the three types corresponds approximately with the cognitive types of task suggested by RASMUSSEN (1986), as well as the lower levels of goal-directed action concepts (HACKER 1986, OESTERREICH 1984), although the differentiation here is motivated differently.

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While schematic and algorithmic behaviour can be described and therefore anticipated, problem solving behaviour always contains a creative process to generate a solution iteratively by comparison of actual and desired state. 3.5 Memorization in Problem-Solving System Elements

Problem solving consists of a creative process to generate a solution referring to stored information (memory), as well as at least one feedback loop. Each step of the problem solving cycle requires referring to the stored information with respect to categorizing observations, assessing solutions and anticipating system changes (see Fig. 27.4). The content of the storage determines the type of solution (and as a consequence the quality of the solution), as analysis, synthesis and action refer to the stored information and therefore each assessment of success is based only on this stored information. This happens in the sense of anticipation (LUCZAK 1995), using experience to estimate the consequences of a theoretical option and, when putting into reality, filling the memory by experiences from real world. A different memory would result in different actions and in different assessment of actions.
Evaluation Task Analysis Synthesis Action Action Result

Memory

Memory

Memory

Fig. 27.4: Reference to memory in the problem solving cycle (rhombus = decision)

This is true for a current situation of action as well as for the assessment of a fictive design solution. The importance of the memory is linked to the feedback and enables expertise to be built up by comparing the current situation with former situations and developments. Technically the memory can also be extended by increasing the number of people involved (e.g. through participatory approaches, NORO & IMADA 1991). However, the more expertise is available the more difficult it may become decision making.

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3.6

Integration of Different Objectives

Beside the objective of fulfilling the task for the task execution as well as the preceding action planning, ancillary conditions (e.g. availability of resources) and optimization criteria (e.g. with respect to the consumption of resources) have to be considered (Fig. 27.5). This means that the input for the planning element consists of the task, information of relevant states of other system elements as well as individual needs (KAHNEMAN 1973, SANDERS 1983, WICKENS 1984).

Task System element states Individual needs


Fig. 27.5: Balance between task-related, resource-related (system element states) and individual objectives (rhombus = decision)

Analysis

Synthesis

Action

For the development of action strategies task-related, resource-related and individual objectives therefore have to be balanced. This arises for example with humans. In this case the different objectives cannot be expressed using a uniform scale and, hence, they may not be weighed up rationally (see SMITH & SAINFORT 1989, CARAYON & SMITH 1993). In fact, many more factors have to be balanced, such as short-term and longterm effects as well as efficiency of the effect and the risk of being unsuccessful. Additionally, the planning of action has to ensure the feasibility in principle on the lower hierarchical levels as well as the conformity with the higher hierarchical levels that can normally not be actively affected.

Integration of the Different Approaches: Parallel and Hierarchical Cascades Problem Solving

The proposed approaches are not new in principle. However, expressing them within the formal frame of systems theory this allows any combination of the different approaches. This, again, builds the basis to reflect complex system behaviour. This is demonstrated in the connection of problem solving system elements in a parallel or hierarchical (cascaded) order.

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4.1

Parallel Problem Solving

Parallel connected problem solving occurs if different problem solving instances work concurrently for a task (Fig. 27.6).

Analysis

Synthesis

Action

Result Task ?

Analysis

Synthesis

Action

Fig. 27.6: Principle of parallel problem solving

This approach makes sense for example to achieve a reduction of time to find any (practical) solution (e.g. trying to decode encrypted information). In this case the problem solving elements process the task independently. The objective is attained if one of the problem solving elements has found a solution. In another case the problem solving elements may work together for a joint solution of optimised quality. This is represented as well in form of parallel problem solving, but requires synchronizing of all decision makings in order to avoid inconsistent procedures in the following. Thereby all information would have simultaneously to be made explicit for consistent cooperation. If such an information exchange is feasible only to a limited extend (what is most likely for problem solving units, particularly with human elements), a non perfect cooperation has to be accepted as a matter of fact. This type of cooperation is also a challenge for parallel acting human and machine operators. The potential benefit of parallel problem solving consists, on the one hand, in a greater number of factors to be considered and, on the other hand, in the opportunity of incorporating more experience. The risks of parallel problem solving in contrast is the high effort necessary for coordination as divergent behaviour of the problem solving elements may result in actions of alternating compensation (one problem solving element tries to compensate the action of the other and vice versa).

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4.2

Hierarchically Cascaded Problem Solving

Hierarchical structuring of subsystems presents itself as cascading. A hierarchical structure is easy to represent as long as the lower level contains elements with schematic or algorithmic behaviour. If a subsystem contains one or more element(s) with problem solving characteristics the behaviour of the subsystem is not explicitly predictable, but can only be described as strategy of problem solving behaviour (Fig. 27.7). From the point of view of the higher level of hierarchy it is not the actions that have to be coordinated but rather the tasks and framing conditions. This can be depicted for supervisory tasks of self-dependent individuals with more or less extensive degree of freedom for action. This type of supervisory task can be anticipated much less than the supervision of algorithmic or schematic acting system elements. However, the task of a problem solving (sub-)element is much more flexible with respect to changes of the task, internal ancillary conditions or internal structure. This effect can be observed in semi-autonomous workgroups in combination with parallel problem solving (HENDRICK 1997).

Task

Analysis

Synthesis

Action

Result

(Lx) (Lx-1) (Lx-2)

Anal.

Synth.

Action

Task a Task b Task c

Fig. 27.7: Principle of hierarchically cascaded problem solving (Lx = top level, Lx-1=second level, Lx-2=third level)

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Work Design as a Problem Solving Task

The fact that the systematic procedure and the system model use the same structure allows joint application for the work process and the design process (micro logic and macro logic according to HABERFELLNER et al. 1997). The task of work system design can be represented as a problem solving cycle. The work system can be designed to behave schematically, algorithmically or as a problem solver. The behavioural characteristic of the work system that has to be designed depends on the structure and the degree of freedom allowed for the individuals. The challenge of work system design therefore is not only the system analysis and the understanding of the system to be designed, but also the anticipation of the system elements behaviour (in this case the behaviour of the individuals working in the work system that has to be designed, LUCZAK 1995). Therefore, the task of system design can be described as cascaded problem solving on a higher hierarchical level and the work system of the lower hierarchical level (or lower levels; Fig. 27.8). From this perspective the structure of the design process is identical to the structure of a supervisory task. Notwithstanding, the system variables for system designers and supervisors differ in detail. While the system designer primarily designs structures and resources (which determine the processes for the user or actors in the system), supervisory tasks concentrate primarily on strategies and processes in the context of structures and resources defined beforehand.

Work system

Task a Task b Task c

Resources

Management task Work system design Processes

Fig. 27.8: System design as problem solving on a hierarchical higher level

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One not only has to consider the complexity of the different tasks and situations but also all tasks and constellations of the work system in a design solution. However, this may result neither in the fact that dealing with complexity is passed through to the actors nor by reduction of the degree of freedom of the actor to a limit that the designer can deal with. Dealing with complexity therefore needs balancing, as on the one hand, the complexity for the system designer has to be confined on a level that can be controlled and, on the other hand, not to destroy the internal mechanisms of selfregulation which may result in a limited ability of the system to react on external changes. However, it has to be considered that the design of degrees of freedom is an elementary ergonomics requirement (e.g. ULICH 1994). Thus, work system design that reduces the behaviour of the individuals to an algorithmic characteristic is not appropriate for this reason. Another challenge for the design of work systems results from the fact that not only task related objectives have to be considered but also resource-related and individual objectives.

Conclusion

As a hierarchically structured recursive approach the concept may be applied similarly for micro-ergonomic issues as well as for macro-ergonomics. Different detailed concepts and modelling approaches may be included qualitatively according to specific needs. Using the work system model, the design of work systems appears as a cascaded problem solving task with the design process one hierarchical level above the work system. Thus, the design task is structurally similar to executive functions. In detail, differences exist in a way that the design of the production system mainly controls resources considering possible variations of tasks and conditions whereas the operative management of the production system mainly concentrates on processes and assignment of (available) resources within a limited time budget. Due to the larger variances design tasks mostly appear more complex than management tasks. Thus, the complexity of a work system is challenging, not only for work analysis and design, but also for the responsible actors within the system. Coping with the complexity of a system requires additional resources (mental effort, time), and high complexity may exceed the capacity of the actors to shape action strategies within a limited period of time. The restricted information processing capability of humans may require a reduction of complexity in order to avoid failure due to overload caused by system complexity (depending on individual expertise). Strategies of the actors to reduce complexity thus have to be considered for system behaviour (HOLLNAGEL 2002). This is of particular importance when considering

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multiple workers acting with different degrees of experience in parallel (representing parallel problem solving units), as well as operators having different ranges of decision and control (representing hierarchically cascaded problem solving units). Dealing with system complexity thus requires balancing complexity between system designers and actors. Furthermore, system complexity has to be balanced in way that it does not exceed the coping capacity of designers and actors on the one hand, nor must not be reduced to restrict system reaction and adaptation capabilities. Considering the value of such theoretical considerations one might argue that this has little practical value because it is abstract to apply and, furthermore, does not provide quantitative output as pure engineering models would do. However, although there are numerous limitations to consider (and ever will be as long as the system is of a complex nature), such a type of modelling might be helpful to integrate and to structure different relevant Human factors approaches. Further it enables to transfer this model into a compatible work system design frame, providing anticipatory explanation of many side effects (that occur in any system that involves humans).

References

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Standards
EN ISO 13407, 1997. Benutzer-orientierte Gestaltung interaktiver Systeme. CEN, Brssel.