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Creating Change with Ergonomics . . . Lessons from the Book Switch

The greatest obstacle to implementing a successful ergonomics initiative may be resistance to change. This can be resistance on the individual level - picture an employee at a workstation not wanting to try a new solution. Or it may resistance on a larger scale such as a department manager not supporting the ergo initiative. Or a larger obstacle: company culture not appearing to value ergonomics or employee well-being. Change can be difficult at many levels.

An industry collaborator of mine recently recommended a book - Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This is a very useful book with practical advice on human behavior. Switch explains why change is so difficult - providing insightful ideas, research findings, and examples of how to be more effective navigating change . . . individually, in relationships, and within the context of organizations. Switch provides much value to the ergonomists seeking to create change.

As I read this book, I compared its content to approaches I have used in the past to implement ergonomics initiatives. Switch enabled me to better understand the things that have worked well for me. But maybe of more value, Switch enabled me to understood some of the blunders I have made.

Background on Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard . . .

Switch utilizes a very powerful analogy to help us understand why change is so difficult. Think of your brain being a system made up of 2 components, an elephant and its rider. The elephant is the emotional, instinctive component of the brain; and the rider is the rational, planning component. The rider’s role is to guide/steer/direct the elephant. The rider is all into reasoning, organizing, and planning. The elephant on the other hand tends to operate based on emotions and/or habit. The rider appears to be in control of the elephant. But the rider is actually quite small (in size) compared to the elephant. The rider often struggles to get the elephant to go along with his/her directives. When the rider and the elephant disagree, the rider eventually tires and the elephant gets its way.

Switch conveys this powerful elephant and its rider analogy throughout the book. The authors use this analogy as a tool to explain why it is difficult to create change in many types of situations.

A basic example. It is January 1 and you just started a diet. Over the preceding weeks you conducted some research (reviewed various diets in books or online, read magazines, talked with friends, etc.). Then you planned meals for the week, made a grocery list, and even went out and bought your groceries. The rider clearly has this diet thing figured out!

Initially, the elephant was excited and motivated about the diet. Then after a couple of days serious hunger kicked in. Now it’s mid-week. New diets require an adjustment period, and the rider has persisted (with significant effort) in directing/guiding the elephant . . . for the time being. But by Friday the elephant craves the homemade nacho’s that are typically on the Friday night menu (emotion and habit). The rider persisted for a few days, but after this previous struggle to guide the elephant the rider does not have the energy to continue. The elephant wins. The elephant needed to see (and feel) visible progress in order to remain motivated.

We have all been there in some aspect of our lives. It could be a diet, a change we are trying to make with our kids, or an organizational change involving employees out on a manufacturing line. Experiences implementing ergonomic-related changes can be modeled using this same elephant and its rider analogy. Keep reading . . .

The basic concept behind this elephant and its rider analogy is that it is critical to sufficiently motivate the elephant, utilizing the elephant’s energy & passion (otherwise nothing gets done); while having the rider exert the necessary planning, direction & control to get to the correct destination.

There are some great examples in this book that I can relate to based on my experiences applying ergonomics. A few “Ergo Change Tips”.


Using the elephant and its rider analogy in Switch, the elephant is motivated by seeing progress. No progress and the elephant loses interest. If the ergonomics initiative has failed to implement visible solutions after a period of time, employees will lose faith. Employees need to see change taking place to stay motivated. If not, they will conclude that this ergonomics stuff is just another management initiative that will soon pass, like others before it.

Ergo Change Tip #1: Maintain a solutions-focus

Right out of the gate, ALWAYS make sure the ergonomics initiative is focused on solutions - rather than having too strong of a focus on analysis (Think of analysis as a prelude to the solution). There are a few ways ways you can do this.

First, design/plan the ergonomics initiative to have a solutions-focus instead of an analysis focus. This should be reflected in your materials (message, training content, etc.). I love risk assessment and analysis as much as any ergonomist, but it is solutions that keep the effort alive & advancing.

Keep the focus on solutions from the start. Talk about solutions, take actions toward implementing solutions, post before-after pictures of successful solutions, etc. You get the point. Solutions should dominate the landscape of your ergonomics initiative. Avoid being overly focused on analysis, as that can be crippling during the early stages of an ergonomics effort. In the big picture, plan to spend at least twice the time on solution development, implementation & followup as you spend on risk assessment & analysis. If you are failing to meet this 2:1 ratio, back off on the analysis and put more emphasis on solutions!

Second, when training the ergonomics team or group of ergo problem solvers, incorporate real case problem exercises taken from the operation. Employees need to see that ergonomics works in this plant, not someone else’s plant. Make the training relevant.

Third, make sure that the first 1-2 projects the team tackles are relatively easy. Nothing is as motivating as a quick win. You want the team to have a slam dunk (at least a layup) for their first project or two.

I will never forget a team I trained back when I was a corporate ergonomist. I completed the training, then returned a few months later. The team had evaluated practically every job in the plant . . . but had implemented ZERO solutions! Management was close to pulling the plug on the effort, and the employees had clearly lost interest. Don't let this happen! A quick win inspires confidence.

One way facilitate a quick win is to offer the ergo problem solving team a handful of pre-screened projects to choose from for their first project. In contrast, avoid tackling the problem that a team of engineers has been struggling to resolve (unsuccessfully) for 10 years. I have made that blunder as well.


Switch teaches us that the rider part of our brain tends to become overly-consumed with planning & analysis (as in “paralysis by analysis”). This often leads to inaction, or insufficient action . . . rider is too bogged down with analysis to get anything done. The authors explain the concepts of scripts & paths as a means to help prevent this from happening. I think it is reasonable to relate scripts and paths to using basic ergonomics tools & process.

Ergo Change Tip #2: Keep it simple

When teaching others to apply ergonomics, the tools we use for analysis & design should be practical, easy-to-understand, and straightforward to apply. This helps prevents people from becoming frustrated or getting overly-consumed with analysis. We don’t want to intimidate the people we need to get involved applying ergonomics . . . hourly employees, supervisors, Lean technicians, etc.

Keep it simple. Think about it. If something is complex, overly-detailed, difficult to understand, or difficult to remember; people are likely to procrastinate or avoid it altogether. This is human nature.

It is also important to keep the language we use simple as we teach others to apply ergonomics. For example, if the trainer uses the term “radial deviation” when referring to bending the wrist in the direction of the thumb, this is too complicated. Overly technical jargon is just one more thing people must remember, adding little value to what they are trying to accomplish. Instead, simply say “bending the wrist toward the thumb”. Everyone understands that (no “ergo jargon” to remember).

It is important to keep the risk assessment, evaluation, and design tools we use simple. If it takes hours of training or requires an engineer (or even local expert) to understand & apply, your tools & process may be too complicated.

An example. For years I trained ergonomic teams using traditional anthropometric tables. Anthropometric tables help ergo problem solvers do things like determine how high a shelf should be, or determine the best height adjustment range for an adjustable worktable.

To successfully apply academic-based anthropometry tables; trainees must understand “percentiles”, have a basic understanding of the Normal Distribution, understand designing for the 5th percentile female to 95th percentile male, know how to lookup values in the tables, etc. Even finding the appropriate table can even be confusing.

Traditional anthropometric tables simply too complicated. Is there a better way? Oh yea . . .

One day while observing a new consulting engineer train a group (using my old materials), a lightbulb went off in my head. I realized that many of the tools we were using to apply ergonomics were too complicated and could be greatly simplified. Note, I am not talking “dumbed down”, but tools being simplified to accomplish the same thing. In some cases, a redesigned analysis or design tool can enable the user to accomplish more with less effort.

Today I use a simplified anthropometric model (a “visual model”) to teach people to apply anthropometry. I don't even call it “anthropometry” (that is ergo jargon), choosing instead to call it Body Dimensions. Using this tool, trainees can see the values on a human figure instead of searching through anthropometric tables. This simplified model/tool is much easier to understand & apply. Using the simple tool, trainees complete training case problems in less time and complete them more accurately. Less training time, less application time, more accurate results . . . this helps get better results applying ergonomics.


The authors of Switch frequently refer to something they call “Shrink the Change”. This is basically making change more palatable by simplifying the change. One way to simplify is to break something big into manageable pieces . . . like ascending a stairway, one step at a time. When implementing ergonomics, a simple and well-defined process is invaluable. This avoids scaring the elephant, and prevents rider from getting lost in the details.

Ergo Change Tip #3: Follow a defined process

The Saturn Ergonomics problem solving process consists of 4 basic steps.

1.) Find & prioritize problems

2.) Evaluate & develop solutions

3.) Justify & implement

4.) Followup & document

Ergonomics problem solving teams can get results by following the process. It helps for each step to have well-defined content & tools. A checklist (touted as a useful tool in Switch) is a good tool to clearly organize the supporting tools & content.

The step by step breakdown keeps the process manageable. And completing each step allows the team to see visible progress. Visible progress motivates the elephant, and rider doesn’t need to “overthink” the situation . . . just follow the process!


In Switch, the authors point out that people need to be more flexible with the concept of failure. They refer to this as “Fail in the Middle”. Before we reach our destination with a project, there will likely be some failures along the way. I have found that failures are ok if they 1) don’t cost much money, and 2) don’t require much time.

Ergo Change Tip #4: It’s OK for some solutions to fail

When applying ergonomics it’s very important to be willing to fail. If you don’t experience some failures, you are not taking enough chances and implementing enough innovative solutions. The trick is to “fail small”. Failing small is often accomplished by utilizing an iterative approach to solution development. Start simple (first solution iteration) and proceed to a more refined version of the solution.

For example, first try a minimum viable solution to initially see if the idea works. For example, if a proposed solution is to increase (or vary) work height, the minimum viable solution might be to place 2x4 wood spacer blocks underneath the table (to initially test the concept). If this works, you now have more confidence about ordering and installing the $2,000 height-adjustable workstation. The 2x4 test is very inexpensive and takes little time. If you fail small, it is no big deal.

Actually expect some solutions to fail. That’s ok. Using this approach, you will implement a greater number of solutions, and ultimately get higher quality solutions.


Switch repeatedly stresses the importance of finding” bright spots”. This is simply identifying what has worked in the past in a system or process, rather than putting all of the emphasis on what is broken and what doesn't work. The idea is to identify bright spots, then duplicate, grow, and accentuate these things that have worked in the past.

Ergo Change Tip #5: Grow to the light (find the “bright spots”)

Implementing ergonomics initiatives, I have observed many different approaches with respect to the department/group or even the job position leading/directing or implementing the changes. I have seen the traditional multidisciplinary ergonomic team makeup succeed, and I have seen this conventional team makeup fail miserably. I have also seen many unconventional approaches work very well and achieve tremendous results. The unconventional approach might consist of the ergonomics process being led/driven by Engineering, the Lean Team, Maintenance Dept., or even a passionate individual. And what works well in one location may not work well at another location (even within the same company).

When working with a company to organize an ergonomics initiative, I have found it invaluable to spend time at individual locations during the early planning stage. Then, simply seek out and listen to those persons already getting results in ergonomics. Not a formal multi-day cultural assessment, ergonomics audit, etc., but simply meet with different people & groups. Ask them questions. And listen. Basically observe what is going on. Using this approach, you can find out things such as

Who has prior training or background in ergonomics?

Who (dept./area or individual) is passionate about ergonomics?

Who has already had success tackling ergonomic-related challenges?

Who seems to get things done related to ergonomics? (Engineering, Lean, Safety Manager, etc.)

Within the context of ergonomics initiatives, the “bright spot” is simply finding what already works. Then do more of “that”. What I call “growing to the light” is simply working with locations to develop a strategy & plan optimal for them . . . based on what has worked at these locations in the past.

If a consultant or corporate ergonomist comes in with a one-size-fits all approach, they may miss these bright spots. I have planned, developed & implemented large, one-size-fits-all ergonomics processes for multi-national companies (even as large as 100+ locations). That type of large-scale solution will indeed reach all locations, but may not be as effective as working with a subset of locations and using a more location-specific, customized approach.

To implement a new ergonomics process or improve an existing one, find the bright spots!


Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is a great book. Their elephant & rider analogy of how the human brain deals with change is quite interesting. Switch contains many lessons that can be adapted for implementing ergonomics initiatives (or other types of change efforts).

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