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Such a Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

by Tom Ehrenfeld
June 23, 2013

Such a Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

by Tom Ehrenfeld
June 23, 2013 | Comments (11)

It’s always fun to encounter news items that are lean in essence without calling themselves so. Consider the apocryphal story about the band Van Halen’s demand that all backstage snacks contain bowls of M&Ms with the brown ones removed. As we read here and here, and as David Lee Roth explains here, it turns out that the band made this request as a form of error-proofing—a lean practice commonly known today as pokayoke. To quote Spinal Tap, there really is such a fine line between stupid... and clever.

Speaking of "stupid," our fearless leader at LEI has shared some intriguing background on the history of pokayoke—which was originally titled bakayoke. "Baka" is a Japanese phrase that can loosely be translated as dumb-ass.

According to John Shook: 

"As for pokayoke and bakayoke, yes, the term was originally bakayoke. Baka means stupid or dumb-ass and yoke means something like 'prevention', so 'foolproof'. The switch to pokayoke was one of the most amazing things I witnessed in Japan. Toyota and the entire Japanese industry switched almost overnight from a word that was as common as you can imagine (like 'foolproof') to a new term (pokayoke or mistake-proof) that sounded contrived and didn't roll of the tongue. The decision was made because it was decided that baka was offensive... The fact that it could be executed so completely and so quickly was astonishing. This was in the late 80s, so Toyota materials from the early to mid-80s say bakayoke, and the NUMMI materials, from the early 80s, say bakayoke. But the Kentucky materials just a few years later say pokayoke. I have a late 80s reprinting of a 1975 Japanese language TPS training manual. Someone had gone through the entire printed original with white-out and replaced each instance of the typed “ba” with a hand-written 'po'.
 
As to the question of whether the Van Halen M&Ms are an example of pokayoke? Pokayoke means coming up with a mechanism that prevents a human from making a human error."

Is this lean by design? No. Does it illustrate the power of a key lean tool? Yes. Are these questions annoying? Perhaps. What do you think? Is this a good example of pokayoke? What examples come to mind for you? Where do you see lean thinking showing up in surprising places?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  pokayoke,  TPS
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11 Comments | Post a Comment
Jamie Flinchbaugh June 26, 2013
3 People AGREE with this comment

Technically, this would qualify as error proofing but not in the sense that it prevents anything. 

Error proofing methods are best when they actually prevent the error from occurring in the first place, but they can sometimes warn that you have recently committed an error. 

This doesn't prevent, but does warn. And it doesn't warn that a true error was committed, only that the contract was not read thoroughly. 

Jamie Flinchbaugh

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John Shook June 26, 2013
Agree, Jamie. This one doesn't actually prevent the error from occuring, which makes it a pretty poor example of pokayoke. I never was a D Lee Roth fan, anyway - he needed some errorproofing on his vocals if you ask me :-

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Federico June 27, 2013
It´s more like Sampling for Quality Control. If the sample goes wrong, you check the other important things. In that way, it may prevent serious mistakes

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Pam July 02, 2013
This is a great story - use a simple method to make potential problems 'visible'

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CCarmichael June 26, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

poKE-yoke

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Devon June 26, 2013
2 People AGREE with this comment

We use the brown M&Ms story as an example of visual management for training sessions. I don't think it's a pokeyoke.

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Philip Sullivan June 28, 2013
8 People AGREE with this comment
The joy of the post is that it is indirect. Because is it a little left-of-center it promotes enquiry and discussion that leads to a deeper understanding of the subejct amongst practitioners (mistakeproofing in this case).

It also brings levity to the dry articulation of the tools and methods which invaluable for an audience. Fab Post


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Ken Hunt July 02, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Great! Now I have another new term to use (with discretion of course).

:-


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Jesse Shearin July 02, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
It may not be textbook pokeyoke, but considering that the band was not on site prior, and it was not their work process, it is a good surrogate method. This really is lean thinking - what is a tool that we can use to identify a potential issue PRIOR to a bad event. And given that David Lee Roth and company were not trained in lean techniques, I say "good job!" Great story

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Brian Logan July 11, 2013
One pokeyoke I really like and use during training I present on the subject is the new dental floss dispensers. Before you never knew when you would get the short piece you can't even floss with. Now they have a little window so you can gage when you may need to buy more floss. Clever and simple, it's what a pokeyoke should be

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Nigel Tufnel July 11, 2013

I would agree with Federico above, that it is more like Sampling for Quality Control. Carelessness in this request would potentially - but not necessarily - indicate more widespread inattention to detail. The Snopes article provides some interesting backstory. http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/vanhalen.asp

Overall, the story functions better as a Zen koan, facilitating learning and discussion, as Phiip points out.

One of the more subtle pokayokes I've run across recently were red tapes applied to the buckles of climbing harnesses used at a camp's climbing wall. 'Seeing red' meant the buckle wasn't properly threaded, and thus unsafe. I think also of those pens with retraction mechanisms that prevent them being clipped into your pocket with the tip exposed.

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