Do you remember a post-hippie era song called SignsThe song’s refrain came to mind recently during a workplace walkthrough:

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Both office and factory were heavily invested in workplace organization, striving to create a workplace free of confusion.  Employees told me, when asked, that they never had to search for anything – ever.  The manager who walked with me proudly spoke of their team effort to create order from chaos by sorting out unneeded items – information, material and equipment.  “The employees in each department were the change agents,” he said.  “They decided first what should go and then where to place the things they need.”

To be sure, there were clearly marked, set locations for almost everything. Floors, bench tops, shelving, cabinets and bookcases all were taped and addressed. But one thing bothered me.  Lots of signs.  Little reminders were posted everywhere (“do this, don’t do that”) intended to usher the flow of production and information sans delays or defects:

  • A decal on an assembly fixture warned:  Caution. Do not operate without material.  An operator explained to me that fixture would be damaged if run empty. “Has that ever happened? I asked.  “Why do you think the sign is there?” she replied.
  • Above a packing bench in the shipping department a cute sign inquired, Got manuals? to remind packers to include operating instructions with products.
  • In the test lab, a sign over a test bath read, Turn on at shift start, off at shift end.  “Do you ever forget?” I asked.  “Yes, occasionally,” was the reply.
  • In a production control department, signs on computers read, Please log off at night.
  • Signs for the order desk were everywhere, some formal and some just hand-written notes.  “How do you keep track of all of these exceptions and special conditions?” I asked the order-entry person.  “I just know,” replied the employee, “and many of these notes are out of date anyway.”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign ,” I began humming to myself.

“Why all of the signs?” I asked my host as I pointed a couple do-this-don’t-do that’s.  “They’re work standards,” he replied.

“But aren’t most of these signs just warning employees about problems that haven’t been fixed?” I asked.

My host looked at me incredulously and said, “It’s just part of their jobs.”

“Is it really?” I persisted.  “Are these things they were hired to do, or are these signs just mental clutter?”

What do you think?  How many signs can you find in your department?  Chime in.


4 thoughts on “Signs

  1. Gary

    Too often, signs become part of the scenery. They are not read anymore. If you don’t believe that, try this experiment: Change the wording and see if anyone notices. You’ll be disappointed at the results.

    I knew a materials manager who was required to produce a large monthly report. In the middle of the report he put a comment — If you’ve read this report so far, please call me and I will send you $5. After a number of months without paying any money, he stopped putting in the comment.

    If you want signs read, make them bright colors and change them periodically. Make the workplace interesting!

  2. Jonathan

    I would say that certain production signs are the “poor mans poke yoke”… an excuse to use a visual instead of really getting to the error proofing!

  3. David Visco

    Interesting post. One client I’m working with is constantly saying “that’s it! I’m going to put up a sign”. I ask why and the response is always the same “just to remind them”. I then ask why is this necessary? If there are standards in place, signs should be less necessary if at all. I also suggest that people may read them once but more than likely they’ll just become wallpaper. The next response will typically be “at least then I can say “read the sign”. Alas, I work to pull them back from the dark side and have them work on their standards and training.

  4. Chuck D'Antonio (@crdant)

    At first I thought “Yes! What a great place to look for improvement possibilities,” but now I’m not so sure. Many signs may highlight areas for improvement, but at the same time I think of the checklist of Atul Gawande fame and wonder if signs don’t serve a simpler tool that servers the same purpose. I think that’s what your host was getting at about “work standards” and is consistent with the “poor man’s poke yoke” remark in an earlier comment.


Leave a Reply