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Reading the Signs

by Eric Ethington
February 19, 2014

Reading the Signs

by Eric Ethington
February 19, 2014 | Comments (3)

"Do not throw away. We refill the empty bottles."

These are the labels I see on the toiletry bottles at my gym. Pretty unremarkable, unless you really think about them. Another label/sign I always remember is a sign I saw on a hotel room desk that said, "Turn on switch below to provide power to desk lights."

Why do signs like these exist? The obvious answer would be "to address a problem," right. But, think carefully, how do we know a sign is the best countermeasure?

In the first example, the gym is waiting to refill bottles only after they are empty. Instead of thinking about a process solution for members throwing away the empty bottles, the gym just made a label. How else could they have solved this problem? Well, if the toiletries were topped off each evening there would be no need for a label. That's just one idea, but I'm sure there are other solutions.


In the second example, the desk was designed so that the power switch for the lights is hidden below a darkened shelve. (Did I mention that the switch itself was dark brown? Almost a catch-22. One needs a light to see the switch to activate the light!). If the desk were designed so the switch is located in a more obvious location, no sign would be needed. Starting to get the idea?

Ok, ok, what does any of this have to do with Lean?

How often does your organization settle for an inferior process design or process fix, bandaged together with labels and signs? This approach merely shifts the burden of the process inadequacies to the user. I remember once I observed a workstation at a plant that had nine different quality alerts posted in front of the operator (see right). Nine! This meant nine problems were left unsolved and the burden was shifted to the operator. 

So before you are tempted to add a sign to any process, or just employ an add-on or work around to any process, remember a quote from my sensei Yamada-san, “Signs are an excuse that we could not make a good system.”

Look, signs are great and will never completely go away, but they should be the exception and not the rule. Look for real process solutions to your problems. Of course this requires really slowing down and getting your hands dirty in PDCA problem solving. But it’s worth it.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Mark Graban February 19, 2014
2 People AGREE with this comment

Yes! Signs are often an indicator of a problem. They're often not a good root cause solution.

I've written and talked about this a lot and created a photo blog with pictures of bad signs (mostly from hospitals, where this is a real problem):


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angela recker March 02, 2014
Do you have a suggestion on what the alternatives might be if you do not want to shut down production to train or inform your people? With a sign they can read at their leisure and still be informed. Many times it is not the getting hands dirty in the problem solving that is the problem. It is the fact that many workers cant multitask and still be able to make quality parts.

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Eric Ethington March 13, 2014


Good question.  The answer is very specific to any given situation.  One needs to look at the actual work itself and then think about how to design the workplace to minimize the need for signs.  We once had a problem with missing nuts.  Person "A" would place and tighten 3 nuts and then person "B" would place and tighten 3 nuts.  We tried all sort of visuals, signs, quality alerts, etc with the goal of getting the operators to understand the importance of having six nuts in the final assembly all tightened.  Then we tried something different.  We had person "A" hand place all six nuts and person "B" tighten all six nuts.  For person "B" to naturally do their job they were uncousciously inspecting the presense of all of the nuts.  In the end, problem solved, but solved through improving the process, not posting a sign.

I am not advocating the complete abolition of signs, but they shouldn't be considered a final countermeasure to a problem.


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