Noise: How to Overcome the High, Hidden Cost of Inconsistent Decision Making

Daniel Kahneman et al in Harvard Business Review (2016):

At a global financial services firm we worked with, a longtime customer accidentally submitted the same application file to two offices. Though the employees who reviewed the file were supposed to follow the same guidelines—and thus arrive at similar outcomes—the separate offices returned very different quotes. Taken aback, the customer gave the business to a competitor. From the point of view of the firm, employees in the same role should have been interchangeable, but in this case they were not. Unfortunately, this is a common problem.

Professionals in many organizations are assigned arbitrarily to cases: appraisers in credit-rating agencies, physicians in emergency rooms, underwriters of loans and insurance, and others. Organizations expect consistency from these professionals: Identical cases should be treated similarly, if not identically. The problem is that humans are unreliable decision makers; their judgments are strongly influenced by irrelevant factors, such as their current mood, the time since their last meal, and the weather. We call the chance variability of judgments noise. It is an invisible tax on the bottom line of many companies.

Some jobs are noise-free. Clerks at a bank or a post office perform complex tasks, but they must follow strict rules that limit subjective judgment and guarantee, by design, that identical cases will be treated identically. In contrast, medical professionals, loan officers, project managers, judges, and executives all make judgment calls, which are guided by informal experience and general principles rather than by rigid rules. And if they don’t reach precisely the same answer that every other person in their role would, that’s acceptable; this is what we mean when we say that a decision is “a matter of judgment.” A firm whose employees exercise judgment does not expect decisions to be entirely free of noise. But often noise is far above the level that executives would consider tolerable—and they are completely unaware of it.

More here.