Work related ETTO rules

Erik Hollnagel

Ph.D., Professor, Professor Emeritus


Work-related ETTO rules

The ETTO rules described here are based on a broad view of the general human factors literature, of studies of work, etc. The set of rules is hopefully representative, but does not assume to be exhaustive.

In addition to the work related ETTO rules, there are also individual (psychological) ETTO rules and collective (organisational) ETTO rules:

  • ‘It looks fine’ – so there is no need to anything, meaning that an action or an effort can safely be skipped.
  • ‘It is not really important’ – meaning that there is really no need to do anything now, if only you understand the situation correctly.
  • ‘It is normally OK, there is no need to check’ – it may look suspicious, but do not worry, it always works out in the end. A variation of that is ‘I/we have done this millions of times before’ – so trust me/us to do the right thing.
  • ‘It is good enough for now (or for ‘government work’)’ – meaning that it passes someone’s minimal requirements.
  • 'It is not my/our responsibility' - so we do not need to concern ourselves with that.
  • ‘It will be checked, or done, by someone else’ later – so we can skip this test or action now and save some time.
  • ‘It has been checked, or done, by someone else before’ – so we can skip this test or action now and save some time.

A combination of this rule and the preceding is clearly unhealthy, since it opens a path to failure. It happens every now and then, usually because different people are involved at different times.

  • ‘(Doing it) this way is much quicker’ – or more resource efficient – even though it does not follow the procedures in every detail.
  • ‘There is no time (or no resources) to do it now’ – so we postpone it for later and continue with something else instead. The obvious risk is, of course, that we forget whatever we postpone.
  • ‘We must not use too much of X’ – so try to find another way of getting it done. (X can be any kind of resource, including time and money.)
  • ‘I cannot remember how to do it’ (and I cannot be bothered to look it up) – but this looks like a reasonable way of going about it.
  • ‘We always do it in this way here’ – so don’t be worried that the procedures say something else.
  • ‘It looks like a Y, so it probably is a Y’ – this is a variety of the representativeness heuristic.
  • ‘It normally works’ (or it has worked before) – so it will probably also work now. This eliminates the effort need to consider the situation in detail in order to find out what to do.
  • ‘We must get this done’ (before someone else beats us to it or before time runs out) – therefore we cannot afford to follow the procedures (or rules and regulations) in every detail.
  • ‘It must be ready in time’ – so let’s get on with it. (The need to meet a deadline may be that of the company, of the bosses, or of oneself).
  • 'There is no time to wait' - a variation of the above, but referring specifically to the conditions under which something can be done. An alternative and likely inadequate solution is used instead of the normal one.
  • ‘If you don’t say anything, I won’t either’ – in this situation one person has typically ‘bent the rules’ in order to make life easier for another person or to offer some kind of service. This trade-off involves more than one person, and is therefore social rather than individual.
  • ‘I am not an expert on this, so I will let you decide.’ This is another kind of social ETTO rule, where time and effort is saved by deferring to the knowledge and experience of another person. This rule applies not only to situations at work, but to many other types of relations, not least consultation of various kinds. In view of the momentous events in 2008, it might also be called the financial ETTO rule.