Strategies For Improvement


The label checking process is challenging for the operator who is involved in the process. This challenge comes from the engaging of key cognitive processes, such as, attention and memory, as well as impact of internal and external variables that lead to compromising of the cognitive skills. Smallest of mistakes in label checking can lead to recall of entire consignments, which makes it necessary to improve the processes of label checking or involve good practices that lead to improvement in the process and reduction of errors on the part of the label checker. This report considers the cognitive processes, internal and external variables, and methods for improvement of the processes.


The key cognitive processes engaged during the label checking task

The label-checking procedure concerns the determination of whether the label information on a specific product matches the information that is provided on the product specification sheet. This can be a challenging task for the operative, given that the number of fields of information printed on a label varies between three and eleven, and the operative is called on the repetitively match the information for each product label with its corresponding specification sheet information (Katz, Smith-Spark, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2015). The part of memory that is engaged in this task is the short-term memory, which relates to the ability of the individual to store information temporarily over a duration of few seconds (Cowan, 2008). The ability of an individual to process information in a selective manner (attention) and to retain this information in a working state for a specified period of time (working memory) are both essential aspects of cognitive capacities of the operative, for successfully performing task of label checking. The two cognitive processes that are discussed in this note are attention and memory.

Working memory is the key resource essential for work-related tasks such as label checking (Katz, Smith-Spark, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2015). This aspect of memory consists of a “visuospatial sketchpad”, which allows the temporary storage and manipulation of visual and spatial information (Katz, Smith-Spark, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2015, p. 750). The operative engaged in checking labels is engaged in monitoring and controlling the visual and spatial information so that the attention is focused only on the relevant stimuli (in this case, the information on the barcode and the specification sheet), so that the irrelevant information is discarded (Engle, 2002).

There is a very crucial relationship between attention and working memory as the capacity to perform complex tasks is dependent on the ability of the operative to retain the information relevant to performing the task in an accessible state over time, which is working memory, and to selectively process this information in the environment in which the task is being performed, which is attention (Robinson, Manzi, & Triesch, 2008). The operative will be able to perform better at engaging his cognitive processes of memory, if he is able to direct and sustain attention, and hold and update information in working memory (Hambrick, Oswald, Darowski, Rench, & Brou, 2010). Proceeding from this, it can be noted that the ability to focus attention is an important cognitive aspect of the label checking function.

One of the challenges that the operative involved in the task of label checking will continuously face is that of attention or mind wandering. Individuals have a propensity to let their mind wander when they are involved in an ongoing behaviour, such as, when engaged in label checking (Katz, Smith-Spark, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2015). This is a repetitive process, which allows the individual engaged in the process to at times have thoughts that are unrelated to the task of label checking, which moves attention from the task (Katz, Smith-Spark, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2015). Research indicates that the incidence of mind-wandering becomes relatively high when individuals are involved in completing undemanding and repetitive tasks (McKiernan, D'Angelo, Kaufman, Binder, & R., 2006). Label-checking is a repetitive task, where the engagement of the individual is only with selecting, reading, and checking information on labels against a specification sheet, which allows the individual to let his mind wander at times (Katz, Smith-Spark, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2015). Therefore, attention to the task at hand, becomes challenging; although, the task is in itself not challenging.

The internal and external variables that may influence these processes (context-dependent and individual-dependent)

The cognitive processes of working memory and attention can be influenced by certain internal and external variables. Working memory refers to internally maintaining information and attention refers to selection of external information (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). The way internal and external forces can impact the way we process information and apply it to tasks can be seen from this angle of how internal and external forces can conflict with each other (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). The external environment consists of innumerable stimuli, which need to be filtered by us so that we can focus attention on the limited stimuli that we need to act upon. At the same time, the internal variables include our goals, reminders of tasks to be done, thoughts that our mind may be wandered to (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). Therefore, even when an operator is involved in the task of label checking, his external stimuli, which includes the label as well the sheet on which the information is given, needs to be focused on. At the same time, his internal action should be able to derive this focus on the limited stimuli without losing track or letting his attention wander. This is challenging because of the internal variables that may take the attention away from the external stimuli for a period in time.

Label checking involves the cognitive processes of working memory and attention. Working memory requires the ability to maintain and manipulate information temporarily, by retaining information that is no longer accessible to senses (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). Visual attention can be guided by internal representations which can bias as well as guide visual selection (Wolfe, 1994). However, it has also been argued that attention to external stimuli is not necessarily controller of working memory, as the contents of working memory can affect the capturing of visual attention, despite the internally maintained representations being irrelevant to the current external task (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). Nevertheless, it has been reported that attention and working memory are very closely linked to each other (Theeuwes, Belopolsky, & Olivers, 2009).

It has been emphasised that internally maintained representations are beneficial in the event of overlapping with externally geared endeavours (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). It is also important to note that processes may be impacted by contexts and individuality. Contexts impact the processes of working memory and attention because visual search is influenced by knowledge from context (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). Certain tasks can be impacted when irrelevantly maintained information interferes with visual search, such as when a label checker is checking the label information as against the sheet information. This is because of contexts of the task that the operative is involved in. Contexts of certain other tasks may be such that they are not impacted by influence of stimuli concerned with unrelated representations (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013). Regardless of the impact of the contexts, research indicates that internal attention can be strategically controlled so as to not impact negatively on the external selection (Kiyonaga & Egner, 2013).

It is also noted that there is a duality of control framework in our cognitive processes (Braver, 2012). The Dual Mechanisms of Control framework (DMC) is based on the premise that our cognitive control processes operate through two distinct operating modes, which are proactive control and reactive control (Braver, 2012). The proactive control mode is used for the ‘early selection’ of goal-relevant information and this helps to maintain this information in a sustained manner (Braver, 2012). This early selection of information before the occurrence of the event that demands cognitive process, helps to bias attention, perception and action systems towards a specific goal (Braver, 2012). In this case, the operative will be involved in the task of selecting the information that is to be applied to the task of label checking before label checking. The reactive control is involved in bringing attention as a matter of ‘late correction’ which is effected when needed, that is when the actual label checking exercise is conducted (Braver, 2012). In terms of individual dependant variables, the DMC framework is relevant because it provides that even “potentially subtle differences between otherwise similar tasks might lead to significant changes in an individual’s preferred cognitive control strategy” (Braver, 2012, p. 107).

It is suggested that if label checkers are encouraged to adopt or move towards a more systematic approach to their task, there would be a reduction of undetected label errors (Smith-Spark, Katz, Marchant, & Wilcockson, 2015). As per this suggestion, quality control label-checking process can be improved if the behaviour of the label checkers is improved or made more systematic oriented (Smith-Spark, Katz, Marchant, & Wilcockson, 2015). A study using three blocks of label checkers, found that there is a significant improvement in label checking error reduction, if instead of letting label checkers check the labels in their individual manners, are instead encouraged to adopt a uniform systematic approach to label checking (Smith-Spark, Katz, Marchant, & Wilcockson, 2015). The study found that systematic approach to checking reduces one or more factors which compromise cognitive efficiency (Smith-Spark, Katz, Marchant, & Wilcockson, 2015).

One of the good practices that can be adopted for ensuring that label checking involves minimum error is to provide proper training to label checkers and also give explicit instructions to the checkers (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). A recent study found that one of the reasons for label-checking errors occurrence as found through observations and interviews at a large packaging facility was that the operatives had not received formal training in label-checking (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). This is an important finding, which shows that even in large packaging facilities, label checking is being done by individuals who are not properly trained for the job.

A key to involving the most appropriate individuals in the task of label checking is through personnel selection (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). It is found that the number of years of experience is an irrelevant factor for determining whether an individual is an appropriate fit for the task of label checking and more attention should be paid to the cognitive processes of the individuals being tested for the job (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). Personnel who have a more systematic approach are more suited to the job of label checkers as they are more capable of detecting errors in the labels (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). The individuals who are selected for the job of label checking should be those who are qualified in the task of quality control and have the necessary aptitude to maintain attention and working memory for the necessary tasks of label checking.

Use of appropriate software to guide performance towards a more systematic approach is also found to be useful for reducing errors in label checking as this software is useful in encouraging the label checker to remain focussed on the task at hand and avoid mind wandering to impact the task (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ).

The traditional approach towards cognition is that it occurs solely in the mind of the individual, but this approach is rejected by advocates of distributed or external cognition. Distributed or external cognition lays emphasis on the interaction between the internal mental resources of the individual and the external resources available in the environment (Zhang, 1997). The reasoning behind this approach is that the external resources can guide and constrain the processes of cognition (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). Therefore, by distributing cognition over internal and external resources, the label checking process may become more efficient as well as lead to reduction of cognitive load on the operative involved in label checking (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). This can have a positive impact on the performance of the operative by reducing the number of errors (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). The external resources will also help to ensure that the label checker checks limited fields of information at a time. This can help in reducing the burden on the short-term memory and improve attention to details (Cowan, 2008). The distributed approach has been shown in studies to be useful for reducing the cognitive demands of the label checking task (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ; Cowan, 2008). Distribution can be done between individual and a software-based tool, or even across different individuals (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). Distribution between individual and a software-based tool is a more efficient option as compared to distribution across individuals because at times the demands of the work environment may mean that two checkers are not available at the same time, thus compromising the process (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). The process of distribution between individual and a software-based tool is more reliable in that sense.

A method that has proved to be efficient in reducing errors in label checking is the Greenlight Label check process (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). This method adopts a distributed with both visual and auditory information and cues being provided to the operator who is involved in label-checking. The operator is guided through the process of checking, with one field of information being provided at a time so that a serial approach is taken to label checking process. The operator receives visual information and there is a use of a speech production software, which reads out the relevant entry on the product specification sheet. This facilitates the checking against the label visually, against what is heard through the speech production software (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). The results of the label checks are distributed to relevant managerial staff and are also stored. This helps in keeping the records of the label checks for some period in time. This method was tested in a live site trial at a large pack-house facility over a period of three months, and the results of the tests showed the number of label errors to the final customer at zero (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ). The feedback from the quality control staff of the facility also showed that the staff found the new system to be more efficient, quicker and reliable (Smith-Spark, Katz, Wilcockson, & Marchant, 2018 ).

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Providing better training to the operatives involved in label checking will reduce errors in label checking. Another method that can be included for improving the process is through distributed or external cognition. This can be done by combining software usage for the task of label checking. By improving the processes, reduction of errors by operatives can be ensured.


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