The Multitasking Myth – Handling Complexity in Real-World Operations

by Loukia D. Loukopoulos, R. Key Dismukes & Immanuel Barshi.

The way people multitask, or better, switch tasks, and the problems associated with this gained much interest in recent years. “The Multitasking Myth” focuses on the process of task-switching in real work situations, the adverse effects it has, and strategies to mitigate these. Multitasking is a form of concurrent task management. Although most work cannot go without it, it bears considerable risks: Tasks can be done incomplete, incorrect, or not at all.

The authors focus on one particular type of work, flying aircraft. Aircraft safety largely depends on the use of operational procedures, and some of these are in the form of checklists. The proper execution of procedures and use of checklists is considered essential for aircraft safety. The use of these procedures and checklists in actual daily operations is the central element of this book. Processing the checklists correctly is hampered by the complexity of working on a commercial airport with tight schedules. The captain and co-pilot each have their own tasks and responsibilities, interwoven with the collective processing of checklists. In addition to this, the crew must co-ordinate with the services, such as gate agents, fuelers, and ground control. These services will intervene the tasks in the cockpit with their own procedures, so complicating task management. Good coordination between the captain and co-pilot is essential, and in this book much attention has been given to this teamwork in the cockpit.

The main focus of this book is on task-switching in relation to prospective memory. When a procedure is interrupted, the user must remember to continue the procedure when arriving at a specifi c location, event, or time. This type of memory gained more interest in recent years, and knowledge about the limitations of prospective memory is applied in this book. Other well-known forms of human error, in particularly memory-related, are briefly discussed when appropriate. The book consists of six chapters and four appendices. After a gentle introduction of the problem using everyday examples, chapter 2 provides a detailed introduction into multitasking with references to current research. Chapter 3 explains how checklists and procedures are intended to be used in ideal flights, after which real-life use is described in chapter 4. It will not come as a surprise that there can be large discrepancies between the ideal situation and reality. Four prototypical problems are selected in chapter 5, after which in the last chapter a strategy is provided on how to improve procedures and checklists to make them more resilient. The appendices provide details about the methods used, all actors in the day-to-day operations, perturbations observed, and official incidents reported.

This book has a very practical, hands-on approach. The theoretical background is limited; the examples are taken from everyday experience. References to recent and standard literature are given for those who want to have detailed information.  What I personally miss are the actual modifications in the procedures and checklists: the situation before and after, together with an explanation of the various choices made. In the introduction some problems are presented in detail. Unfortunately, the improved situation is not shown. Task-switching problems can be found in many other domains, such as the chemical industry, hospitals, and in all forms of traffic control. Although this book can be very useful for professionals outside aviation, knowledge of aviations procedures is desirable to fully understand and appreciate all examples. These are detailed and specifi c, including the solution strategy presented. If you work in aviation and want to know more about task-switching, this book will be of interest to you.

About the authors

The authors are human factors researchers with the Human System Integration Devision at NASA Ames Research Center and have extensive experience with the aviation operational environment.

About the reviewer

Fulko van Westrenen holds a Ph.D. on human-machine interaction, and is the owner of Umantec. Umantec focusses on human-factors work in technical environments. Part of this work is the development of
userfriendly interfaces for complex systems, systems design and humanfactors support.

ISBN 978-0-7546-7382-8 188 pages Ashgate Publishing Limited Ashgate studies in human factors for flight operations


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