Mindfulness Training Adopted to Reduce Errors

One of my favorite poems written for the magazine Punch many years ago reads,

“Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain;
And the pace is hot, and the points are clear,
And Sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For Death is in charge of the clattering train.”

It was one of Winston Churchill’s favorite poems, too. He associated the word “death” to the feckless and myopic practices of Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain prior to World War II. (Chamberlin did not envision or confront the belligerent and ruthless intents of the German dictator, Adolph Hitler.) I may be overreacting and an alarmist when I relate the poem to today’s business executives who fail to see the urgency to provide essential employee training to enhance memory and cognitive* abilities. Specifically, I refer to those supervisors who are blind to the fact that the work force is obsessed with technology (texting, tweets, Facebook), is easily distracted and is likely to make mistakes. These same supervisors are likely unaware of the growing number of recalls and warning letters that result from human errors. On the other hand, FDA is aware and has begun to focus more on quality assurance than concentrating solely on regulation compliance. Future inspections will review good company quality practices that lead to quality outcomes that go beyond compliance. There will be regulatory emphasis on preventive quality practices and encouraging companies to view compliance as one part of achieving overall quality, rather than the ultimate goal. Focus will lie upon identifying and addressing underlying causes of quality issues.

There are a host of reasons for mistakes in the workplace, including forgetfulness, inattentiveness, fatigue, carelessness, distraction, noncompliance, rushing, confusion, bad habits, disregard of learning aids, nervousness and just plain blunders. Many can be addressed by first teaching people to concentrate and to focus on the present moment. This article will describe one proven method to accomplish these goals.

Most everyone agrees that adequate training may be the best way to minimize errors. Lack of training is frequently cited as the root cause for a corrective action. One way to address this nonconformity is through mindfulness training. Mindfulness education is growing in popularity in a number of fields. In the past, mindfulness practice, inherited from the Buddhist tradition, has been employed in psychology to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions. Moreover, scientific research has been ongoing throughout the last 20 to 30 years, with a surge of interest in the last decade. Mindfulness can be defined as mental training that develops sustained attention that can change the way people think, act and feel. Mindfulness can also be thought of as the art of paying attention with an open and curious mind to present moment experiences or as the ability to attend to a task without distraction.

Mindfulness has been practiced by elementary school children and by doctors and their patients. Prisoners practice it, and there is mindful eating that promises a healthier lifestyle. Brain scans have shown that mindfulness may change the way our brains function and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones and even bounce back faster from negative information.

Purpose and Goals
The purpose of mindfulness training is to develop attention, discernment, clear thinking and wisdom. Such training can decrease mind wandering, improve reading comprehension, cognitive performance, working memory capacity and task focus. Goals include error reduction, mistake prevention, customer satisfaction, minimizing adverse effects to the patients, compliance in terms of reducing nonconformities, fewer recalls and market withdrawals. Such training is an overall good business practice, as it has been shown that human error accounts for more than half of all unnecessary workplace expenses.

In a recent randomized two-week program designed to examine whether mindfulness training would decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance, investigators reported positive results.** Mindfulness training improved reading comprehension scores and working memory capacity, while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts. The class emphasized physical and mental strategies that help people maintain focus on the present moment in the face of interrupting thoughts and perceptions. Classes met for 45 minutes four times a week for two weeks. Each class included ten to 20 minutes of mindfulness exercises (See Mindfulness Workout sidebar for an example of the method.), requiring focused attention on some aspect of sensory experience (sensations of breathing or sounds of an audio recording). The course was taught by professionals with extensive teaching experience. Class content provided a clear set of strategies for and a conceptual understanding of how to practice mindfulness. The trainers suggested that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique to improve cognitive function.

Key Concepts
Key concepts of mindfulness include focusing on the present moment, being fully present, open to experience, being nonjudgmental, accepting things as they are, making a connection, being nonattached, embodying peace, compassion and equanimity. There are a number of websites to investigate for instructions on training and a host of books that employees may wish to read to gain greater insight into the benefits of mindfulness.

According to Douglas Rushkoff, respected author and media theorist, a growing and obsessive devotion to information flowing in real time on the Internet and other media interferes with our ability to think clearly (Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, New York, Random House Publishing, 2013). Certainly, many educators will agree. There is recent scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation can benefit brain function and that it actually involves a broad framework of complex mechanisms in the brain. Now is the opportune time for management to begin training sessions to improve the working memory capacity, reading ability and task focus for all employees, particularly those involved in quality and production. Even a brief mindfulness training course could help people rein in wandering minds and in doing so, improve fundamental cognitive abilities.

A Mindfulness Workout

Here is what to do:

  1. Sit in an upright chair, stable position, hands resting on thighs or cradled together.
  2. Lower or close your eyes, whichever is more comfortable.
  3. Attend to your breath, following its movement throughout the body.
  4. Notice the sensations around your belly as air flows into and out of your nose or mouth. You have been breathing all day—all of your life—and in this moment, you are simply noticing your breath.
  5. Select one area of your body affected by your breathing and focus your attention there. Control your focus, not the breathing itself.
  6. When you notice your mind wandering—and it will—bring your attention back to your breathing.
  7. After five or ten minutes, switch from focusing to monitoring. Think of your mind as a vast open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.
  8. Feel your whole body move with your breath. Be receptive to your sensations, noticing what arises in the moment. Be attentive to the changing quality of experience—sounds, aromas, the caress of breeze—and thoughts.
  9. After about five more minutes, lift your gaze and open your eyes.

Scott Rogers, Director of Programs and Training. Mindfulness research and practice initiative, University of Miami. (Jha AP: Being in the now. Scientific American Mind Apr/May 2013:p.26-33)

 *Cognition is defined as the quality of knowing, which includes perceiving, recognizing, judging, sensing, reasoning and imagining

**Mrazek M.D. et al: Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, published on line March 28, 2013:1-6. Sage journals website. (accessed 26 April 2013)

Max Sherman of Sherman Consulting Services, Inc. is a regulatory consultant with more than 40 years of medical device and pharmaceutical experience. He focuses on training, compliance and submissions and has written more than 150 articles. RAPS released a collection of Sherman’s essays in "From Alzheimers to Zebrafish: Eclectic Science and Regulatory Stories." He can be reached by email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..