The engineering change management process identifies proposed changes to products/parts. Individuals and teams involved in product design, manufacturing, quality and serviceability then collaborate on the potential change. Reviewers verify awareness of the upcoming change and comment on impact to teams, deliverables, costs and more. It is this communication back and forth among stakeholders that should lead to good decisions and execution. Only, sometimes it doesn't. In product design and manufacturing environments, we assume decisions are based on facts and technical details. But, perhaps not always. Sometimes, it could be the wrong time of day to make one more good decision.
Social researchers studying people's decision making ability believe we can suffer from “decision fatigue,” or the situation where repeated judgments deplete our mental resources to the point that it influences our next decisions. One particular result of sequential choices is our tendency to simplify decisions by accepting status quo—what is offered, suggested or easiest. One study found that German car buyers were more likely to accept a default car attribute offered by the manufacturer when offered it later in a sequence of choices, particularly when the buyers had to choose from more alternatives and variations earlier in the process. I can relate. I recently purchased a new laptop and certainly felt decision fatigue as I clicked through the many options and add-ons offered to complete the purchase.
In the engineering change management process, I have heard managers complain that people don't always take the changes seriously (lack of willpower), don't investigate the details (lazy) or don't bring up possible issues (conflict avoidance) prior to change approval. Or, alternatively, some people seem to reject changes summarily (curmudgeonly). Managers may often think “why can't people make better decisions on a more consistent basis?”
Given the research on decision fatigue, poor engineering change management could sometimes be the result of fatigue—exhaustion of willpower—particularly for those late-in-the-day fast track changes. At the beginning of the day, our decision making abilities are fresh. As the day wears on and we make many decisions, large and small, our brains get tired, much like overused muscles. When our willpower is tired, according to the research, we take the easy path—easy in whatever way our brain determines. For change approval, it could mean blanket approval or denial without proper focus and investigation. Your brain is tired and you are therefore less willing to make trade-offs or consider complex issues.
If you are a change manager or head of engineering or operations, you should consider if decision fatigue is impacting your company's engineering change management processes. And, while business must be done and sometimes won't follow a predictable schedule, you can take a few steps to overcome decision fatigue in your own teams.
- When possible, have changes reviewed for approval and work earlier in the day.
- Avoid sending out new or difficult changes for review in the afternoons unless absolutely necessary.
- Discuss decision fatigue with team members – awareness can help people manage their time and choose to review non-urgent changes earlier in the day. Consider waiting until the next business morning if a change hits the inbox an hour before end of the day.
- Encourage team members to simplify other parts of the work if possible (and even their personal life). If something isn't important, get rid of it. And, when working on projects, a strict scope often results in better work than an open-ended exploration where team members must make decisions on every detail (this is known as the Rubicon model hailing back to Caesar's decision to cross the river by that name after his defeat of the Gauls, an action that would ignite a civil war).
As simple as it sounds, encourage team members to live healthily and eat regularly. Several studies have shown that glucose levels can reverse decision fatigue, at least temporarily. This explains why dieting can be difficult–if the diet depletes brain glucose levels, the brain has less willpower to continue the diet–a bit of a circular loop. Although our brains are only 2% of our body mass, they demand 20% of our glucose intake. Regular eating does indeed help with decisions.
Last resort. You have an urgent change that needs review at the end of the day? Perhaps bringing some munchies to the table will get you a better business decision.
 Interested in reading more social research? See Danziger S, Levav J, Avnaim-Pesso, L (2011) Extraneous factors in judicial decisions PNAS 108: 6889-6892 and Muraven M, Baumeister RF (2000) Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychol Bull 126:247-269.