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Poka Yoke: Mistake-Proof Your Business Systems

We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human. We lose our car keys; we mail a bill with an unsigned check; we flip the wrong light switch. (As a boy, my parents always said it cost a dollar every time you turn on a light, even for an instant.) In our personal lives, we just accept these minor mistakes. Although, a childhood friend accidentally had the wrong tooth pulled—not so minor.

We all understand that mistakes happen—”no one is perfect”—but in business, repetitive mistakes can’t be ignored. They drive away customers and create waste; the cost comes straight out of your net profit.

The Systems Thinker looks for simple solutions and procedures to eliminate the cost and consequences of these inadvertent errors.

Poka Yoke

Poka Yoke is a Japanese term that describes “making something fail-safe or mistake-proof.” Poka means “an inadvertent mistake.” Yoke means, “prevent.”

Everyday examples include:

  • An electrical plug that can only be put into the socket one way
  • A bathtub or swimming pool with an overflow outlet
  • A sensor on an elevator that prevents the door from closing on people
  • A circuit breaker that shuts off when the electric current spikes
  • An orange cone that protects road maintenance workers
  • A software spellchecker that corrects misspelled words

An often used Poka Yoke in business is the checklist. It helps employees to be thorough, and if necessary, do things in the right order. Email alerts and notifications prevent forgetfulness. The alarm that sounds when a forklift backs up, rubber bumpers on a pushcart, and a “slippery when wet” sign, are all examples of things that prevent mistakes, accidents, and damage.

When your tax person puts several little stickies on pages of your tax return that say “Sign Here,” he or she is trying to eliminate the accidental error of not signing one of the pages, a mistake that will cause you unnecessary delay and hassle in getting your tax refund.

Poka Yoke Example

This past week I took my wife into same-day surgery to have a procedure performed on her wrist. In the waiting room, the physician’s assistant verified with her that it was the left wrist. He then stamped the wrist with the word “Yes” to make sure there was no confusion in the operating room. This procedure eliminates the hospital’s risk of performing surgery on the wrong hand, foot, limb, and so forth. The physician’s assistant also told me that the procedure was written in plain language on the patient’s record—not cryptic medical jargon—and that the attending staff take a time-out before the procedure for one last review of what they are about to do. These important little steps prevent big problems later on.

Improve Quality with Poka Yoke

Do you see how simple, low-cost procedures can really improve the quality of your business operations? Pause for a minute to consider a solution for one of my first examples: lost car keys, mailed checks without a signature, or inadvertently flipping the wrong light switch. Send me a quick note explaining how you would easily solve the problem.

Then, put Poka Yoke to work in your business systems and processes. Talk to your employees about re-occurring mistakes. Be careful not to blame people; let them know you are looking for weaknesses in the system. The worker may need to record the errors for a period of time so you can more clearly understand the problem. Come up with a Poka Yoke solution to eliminate the mistake once and for all!

Your simple solution will create happier customers, put a few more dollars in your pocket, and reduce some of your daily frustration.

But remember, little improvements add up, and make a big difference over the course of time. It is true that “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass!”

Related Article:
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