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Make No Mistake

Want to make your products and processes foolproof? Try a little poka-yoke.

When Dean Dunaway sells $20 worth of oxygen, it's delivered in a $200 tank. If a customer or employee loses track of a single one of those costly containers, it can erase the profits on a huge number of product sales. The bad news is, it happens all the time.

"We have probably 15,000 or 20,000 transactions a month moving those containers," explains the president of 72-person industrial gas distributor Capweld Inc. in Jackson, Mis-sissippi. Keeping track of that many tanks was a logistical nightmare: "Every time somebody reads a seven instead of a one or something like that [on the tanks' identification numbers], your [records] get off."

Billing customers for lost containers didn't work--customers couldn't relate to the idea that the tank was anything more than a tool to use. And employees, being human, occasionally committed errors. So instead of upsetting customers or haranguing employees, Dunaway turned to the idea of mistake-proofing, also known as fool-proofing or poka-yoke (from the Japanese).

First, he began using more technology to record and track tank identification numbers. "As we've gotten more stuff into the computer, that helps," he says. Next, Dunaway hopes to attach microchips to each of the 40,000 tanks his company owns. Scanning the chips to grab ID numbers will further reduce input errors.

"It's helped a lot," Dunaway says of mistake-proofing his design of products and processes. "I hope it's going to help us a lot more."

Dunaway's hopes are likely to be realized, according to Richard B. Chase, a business professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and co-author of Mistake-Proofing: Designing Errors Out (Productivity Press). Poka-yoke is a low-cost, highly effective way for companies of all types to reduce mistakes and boost quality, he says. "Personally," says Chase, "I think it's the next wave of the quality movement."

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Make No Mistake.

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