It’s Not Rocket Science

Having the good fortune to work just down the road from the publisher of Shigeo Shingo’s books, my company had been a beta site for Poka-Yoke training.   We put four-dozen employees, mostly from production, through the training, which resulted in quite a few novel mistake-proof devices.  I learned several important lessons:

  1. Creating an environment where employees are not afraid to report mistakes is a prerequisite.  Depending upon your starting point, this can be pretty challenging as most organizations punish employees for mistakes.   In our case the training emphasized mistakes as gold nuggets – hassles that created stress for the employee.  A few employees cautiously provided examples. When we applied Poka-Yoke to these, instead of handcuffs, the method took root.
  2. Many of these gold nuggets were not even known to supervision.  They were frequent ‘near-misses’ that lived below the AQL radar, only occasionally resulting in a defect.  But there were hundreds of them.   We thanked employees for making these problems clear.
  3. The best Poka-Yoke ideas come from the people who do the job.  Dr. Shingo’s Zero Quality Control provides dozens of great examples of before-and-after Poka-Yoke conditions, but many of the devices designed by our employees were original – not to be found in his book.    As Rollo May puts it “creativity comes from involvement.”  No one has a greater opportunity for involvement than the person who is there 100% of the time, particularly since most mistakes occur infrequently.  
  4. Poka-Yoke is a powerful kaizen practice not only because it eliminates the chance of passing a defect but also because it unlocks employee creativity and fosters an environment of respect and empowerment.  No one cares more about the quality of a job than the person doing it, and Poka-Yoke provides a countermeasure to the things that get in the way of perfect quality.   

In the fall of 1989, about a year after learning and applying Poka-Yoke at my company, I gave a presentation to a conference in Salt Lake City.  I wanted to share what I had learned as a manager, to let others know that Poka-Yoke is a powerful culture changer, not just a defect reducer.  I showed some examples from my factory and talked about the positive impact that the technique had had on my organization. 

At one point, in describing how easy the tool was to learn, I used the cliché,  “It’s not rocket science.”

 As I said this, I noticed some murmurs from the back of the room.    After my presentation, five persons approached the podium.  They were from Morton Thiokol, the company contracted by NASA to produce the solid fuel boosters used on the Challenger space shuttle.  (For a chilling account of management forcing the passing of a defect in order to meet a schedule, click here.)  They commented to me “We are rocket scientists, and we’re here to learn.” 

Bruce (O.L.D.)

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