The ergonomics of innovation, especially affordances, as applied to law departments

An invigorating article in the McKinsey Quarterly, 2008, No. 4, at 131, introduces a set of clever ideas that would help law departments implement new practices. The authors, both professors at Stanford University, draw many interesting lessons from a campaign by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. I would like to extrapolate them to law departments, and start in this post with two terms that they use throughout.

Ergonomics is the science related to people at work, embodying the anatomic, physiologic, and mechanical principles affecting the efficient use of human energy. According to the McKinsey article, “A basic idea from ergonomics is that physical and cognitive ‘affordances’ can help people to think about, know, and use something more easily and to make fewer errors.”

In turn, Wikipedia informs us: “An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action. The term is used in a variety of fields: perceptual psychology, cognitive psychology, environmental psychology, industrial design, human–computer interaction (HCI), interaction design and artificial intelligence.”

For law departments, an affordance is something that allows a lawyer, paralegal or staff person to do something at work. All the support, and resources we know about are what I have somewhat loosely called “tools,” but are also law-department affordances (See my post of Oct. 18, 2006: compares processes to tools; April 17, 2007: tools in law departments; May 3, 2008: represent tools; June 22, 2008: tools, processes and concepts; May 14, 2005: Bain survey of management tools; June 9, 2007: later Bain survey; and Nov. 20, 2007: Bain management practices.).

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