Poka-Yoking The Method

Poka-Yoking The Method


Our methods – our methodologies – have failed us. Not because they don’t help us do better, when well-applied, but because they don’t help us apply them well. Lean, Agile, TOC, you name it. All promise massive benefits “when done right”. And all fail for the most part because they are so rarely “done right”.

Aside: It’s reckoned that Lean adoptions fail some 98% of the time, Agile (Scrum) adoptions at least 75% of the time.

I’m not anti-method. I’ve seen the benefits methods can bring, first hand. I’ve seen the key role a good method can play in reducing the waste of human potential – so prevalent in our knowledge-work organisations today. Hey, some folks might even call me a methodologist. God forbid. Over the past two decades I have regularly asked myself “Why?”. Why are methods so hard for folks to adopt? So unsuited to people getting to do them right?

Discongruent Mindsets

Discongruent mindsets go a long way to explaining the problem.

Folks in any given organisation typically have a bunch of common, shared assumptions and views about the way organisations should work, and about how work should work. Folks who design methods – and methodologies – also have their assumptions and views. Assumptions and views – aka mindset – which get “baked in” to the methods they design and promote.

All too often these two mindsets do not play well together. And all too often the discongruities only become apparent when an organisation has spent some considerable time and effort in attempting to adopt a particular method.

Few folks look at the two mindsets – their’s and the method designers’ – and consider the probability of a match, or mismatch.


Poke-yoke is a Japanese terms that means mistake-proofing. In the design of parts for assembly (DFA), poka yoke can serve to guide parts designers to take explicit steps to ensure parts cannot be assembled incorrectly.

“A poka-yoke is any mechanism that helps an equipment operator avoid making mistakes. Its purpose is to eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur. The concept was formalised, and the term adopted, by Shigeo Shingo as part of the Toyota Production System.”

We can see many everyday examples of mistake-proofing.


Someday, people will design methods that explicitly take account of how people adopt new ideas and ways of working. Method designers will design their methods expressly to help people learn them more easily. People and organisations will select methods based on the ease of their adoption and the sustainability of their use.

Successful – more widely adopted – methods will be those more sensitive to the many foibles and failing of us puny humans. We might call these humane methods. DFA (Designed For Adoption) methods.

What if we applied the Poka-yoke principle to the design of our methods? What if we learnt from the decades of failure regarding the successful, sustainable adoption of Lean, Agile, etc. and applied our knowledge of people and the way they best absorb new ideas and ways of working?

What principles would guide us in such endeavours? What would be our analogies for offset holes, asymmetric flanges, digital counters, interlocks, guards, and so on?

One aspect of future approaches to the design of methods stands out – the need to find approaches that ordinary non-methodologists can pick up and apply. Approaches which play sympathetically to our basic skills and needs – as people. Approaches which suit our human nature. If experience with recent methods such as Agile and Systems Thinking have shown us one thing, it’s the value of having the folks doing the work also being the folks that design and redesign the way the work works.

The Antimatter Principle

“Attend to folks’ needs” is my candidate for improving the mistake-proofing of the designs of our methods. Of improving their Design For Adoption.

I propose that just this one simple principle makes it easier to come up with methods which people are more likely to adopt sustainably. As well as methods which are more likely to deliver real benefits to the adopting organisations and their people.

When considering the waste of human potential, consider not least the waste of enthusiasm, hope, and human potential inherent in failed method adoptions.

Of course, applying the Antimatter Principle well – doing it right – is not a cakewalk. But it seems to me to hold much more promise of folks “getting the hang of it” than all the more or less inhumane methods and methodologies we’ve been lumbered with to date.

– Bob

  1. I’ve always considered that good methods should be implementation neutral – that maybe what we need is an implementation method that could be applied to any method or partial method (or tool, or framework, or model etc). It’s this missing link – which we generally seem to call Change Management – which should focus on the non-technical aspects of your chosen method, namely the key human elements, the stakeholder and relationship management etc. I know their are ‘change management’ frameworks out there but they are often a bit washy washy, and don’t have much traction in the workplace. An ideal change method probably needs to be recursive, which makes it even more difficult to design. Just a thought!

  2. galleman said:

    What a great concept. We work in the DOD Program Management domain, where process abounds. The processes are sound, the people are trained – 2 years at the Defense Acquisition University, and managed by senior uniformed acquisition staff – work for them.
    But there is trouble everywhere.
    Thanks for the learning opportunity.

  3. I know we tend to discourage the use of tooling in favor of physical environments. But perhaps tools could help in the direction you are exploring.

    I’m thinking of a tool that asks me: “Your bug count has been increasing lately. You might try to: write clean code [link], adopt ATDD [link] or run a root cause analysis workshop [steps + link].”

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