"Hidden in plain sight": a quick primer on visual cognition

31 Mar 2015 8:00 AM | Tricia Simo Kush (Administrator)

Author: Frederick "Ken" Sexe

How much do you trust what your eyes tell you? Before you answer please take this quick test on selective attention. This video comes from the Visual Cognition Laboratory at the University of Illinois and Viscog Productions.

A recent newsletter from a friend and colleague of mine, Gwendolyn Galsworth, at www.visualworkplace.com reminds me that much of what happens in an organization occurs out of plain sight yet is critical for its operation. Problems within an organization can occur when decision-makers fail to extend their solutions beyond what they see to interactions ‘hidden in plain sight’ that may hold more effective solutions. The main strength of workplace visuality is in modifying the flow of workplace tasks so that reliance on visual cognition is reduced which in turn reduces the potential for visual cognition errors such as selective attention.

Most people do not see the gorilla in the video even though both videos had the same gorilla walking through it. Why is the gorilla not seen the first time? Because the mind filters what it sees by focusing solely on the white jerseys while ignoring everything else (and since the gorilla was the same color as the other people bouncing the basketball it was subsequently filtered out). When the video is watched the second time the mind removes the filter created by the need to count white jersey basketball player interactions.

Two examples illustrate how selective attention can manifest itself in an engineering team. A major engineering company had an instance where a serious flaw outside the inspection criterion was constantly overlooked during inspection. The solution implemented by management was to increase inspection of the part in question by adding an inspector. Subsequent inspections increased the number of parts identified with the flaw caught but the total number of systems avoiding detection still remained high because although they were each assigned to inspect a certain thing the two inspectors did not see flaws missed by the other inspector. Engineers faced with a design flaw with a power supply in an avionics system focused solely on electrical solutions until a young mechanical engineer challenged the predominant thinking by considering it as a thermal issue. Subsequent testing resulted in identifying a way to improve cooling requiring significantly less redesign than any of the electrical solutions required.

An individual, when faced with a problem in his immediate workplace, views the problem based on his or her perspective while ignoring any other solutions. Organizational roles in which inspection is used as the source of quality become suspect as relying solely on inspection increases the possibility that individuals responsible for inspection will overlook problems outside of their inspection criteria. This is especially true of "good" parts that may pass inspection yet may cause problems elsewhere in the design they are a part of.
Image credit: http://www.imcreator.com/free/objects-items/buzz

Frederick (Ken) Sexe is a lifelong learner currently wrapping up his PhD in Engineering Management and Organizational Psychology at Northcentral University. His hobbies include challenging prevailing patterns of thinking that discourage new ideas while developing new ways to do things. He is currently employed as a Senior Systems Engineer at Raytheon where he is taking a career break from management to pursue his educational goals and focus on his family.

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