The Value of Mistake Proofing

Most companies use some version of the words “respect for people” in their HR mantras. But how is that respect demonstrated?

A team member made a mistake today. He is building a sub-assembly on a mixed model line. He picked a part from a small blue bin with a divider in it.

On one side of that divider is the part he should have picked and installed.

On the other side of the divider is a very similar part.

Guess which one ended up in his hand?

The issue wasn’t caught until a couple of positions down line. When it was caught, it was quickly reworked and corrected.

This particular team member is coming up on the end of his 90 day probationary employment period.

He has seen co-workers who “didn’t make it” (not cut out for assembly work). But he is a smart guy, hard worker, has participated in a lot of improvements for the work he is doing.

Nevertheless, he is worried about the consequences of making this mistake so close to his 90 day evaluation. He just wrote, it seems, what he hopes is his last COBRA check* that will cover him and his wife until his health insurance kicks in at the end of the month.

What is the value of mistake-proofing this operation?

Actually, the consequences of this error are minor. It is easily caught and quickly corrected in a subsequent operation. It is very, very rare. You could make the argument that there are better returns spending the limited problem solving time on bigger issues, and you’d be right… to a point.

But what if this team member’s experience was to see attention focused, not on him, but on what it was about the layout of the work area, about the presentation of parts, about the structure of the work, made it possible to make this error.

What if they acknowledged, overtly, that this kind of mistake is a consequence of being a human being, and that it was only that he happened to be the one standing there when the random chance generator came up?

What if he saw the team leader and supervisor engage him in conversation about what might be done to at least eliminate some of those possibilities? (We don’t really know what happened, though there are some likely guesses.)

What if he was also asked to look for other similar error opportunities, even in his co-worker’s areas, and help eliminate those as well?

What would be the return?

Might this team member work just a little harder to make things even better in the future?

Maybe he would help turn around a cynical or skeptical co-worker.

Maybe he would feel a bit appreciated for what he is contributing instead of losing sleep about his job.

Maybe, at some point in the future, when he is a shop steward, he might remember that “they” are all to human as well.

Who knows.

Before you say “it isn’t work it” remember what Deming pointed out – “Management’s real job is to manage the unmeasurable.”

Good news – in this (real life) case, they are, for sure, eliminating the split bin and separating the two similar parts from one another; plus likely separating two other bins holding similar bolts. Maybe more, there are some ideas being kicked around.

In the end, though, consider if you will the ROI on team members knowing you will support them in their quest to succeed every day.

*For my non-US readers: COBRA is a program where someone can continue employer-provided health care after termination of employment for up to 18 months by paying the cost yourself. This is sometimes cheaper than purchasing private health insurance.

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