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4 ways Recency Bias is influencing you

I was reviewing the loss pareto with a customer over a zoom call, and when we pulled up the loss chart their immediate reaction was “hmph.” I asked them what they expected to see as the top loss for the department, and they pointed me toward a big issue that happened just last week. When we dove into that loss, we found out that while it was a big issue with a significant downtime, it was not the leading loss for the department.

We were talking about why it seemed so odd to them, and they suggested that they were falling subject to “recency bias.” Having been over ten years since my last psychology class, I googled the bias after our call to brush up on the definition.

According to Wikipedia, “Recency bias is a cognitive bias that favors recent events over historic ones.”

Our brains tend to better remember events that just happened over events that happened earlier today.

After that refresher, my eyes were opened to recency bias, and I began to see more examples of it. Here are four common examples that you might see in your organization:

1. Filling out paperwork after the fact

You generally require quality documentation to be performed in real time, but other information reported by the team often waits until the end of the day. This creates a burden on the memory of an employee, and the information written down at the end of the day will not be accurate.

I asked a client about this phenomenon, and here’s his response: “Sometimes I would see people fill out their end of shift sheets and realize that they needed to account for 2 additional hours in the shift. So they would try to fill in the blank, but it wasn't always right.”

2. Employee evaluations

Think about when you are conducting an employee evaluation, your brain automatically pulls up any experiences you have had with that employee recently. If the recent performance of the employee meets expectations, they are more likely to receive a favorable review than if the recent performance is substandard.

3. Estimating the magnitude of something

As a manufacturing leader, I would often ask people, “how long did the changeover take you last night?” I would receive a variety of answers, some were wildly off of the actual time, because people are just not good at estimating the magnitude of time. We were lucky that we had the data to show how long the changeover actually took (and why it took so long), for us to supplement our memory of the event.

4. Are we still having a problem with ________?

I was in a review meeting with the key leaders of the manufacturing line, and someone asked “are we still having a problem with ______?” Several people spoke at once, “No, we fixed that last month.” By this point, you can probably guess what I did. I pulled up the information digitally and found that the problem was still occurring, but to a lesser extent. After bringing it up to the team, we had a clear follow up to go find out what was still occurring on the equipment.

When in doubt, be contemporaneous

One of my clients has posters all across the manufacturing floor reminding employees to document events “contemporaneously.” Contemporaneous notes are notes that are taken at the time of the event. This client understands that our human brains are not perfect, and memory is highly variable.

So to prevent you and your team from falling victim to recency bias, remember to expect documentation contemporaneously!

Jennifer Biggs
Jennifer Biggs
Jennfier has a passion for leading and motivating teams through cultural transformations. She believes that people come to work everyday to be great. Through her operational experience at P&G Manufacturing, she has seen the true potential of an engaged and empowered team. She joined Ampogee in 2018 after 7 years of Manufacturing Operations experience. She has an Executive MBA from UNC Chapel Hill and a BS in Chemical Engineering from NC State University.

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