Saturday, January 21, 2006

Poka-yoke

Who uses it: Industrial engineers
What it means: Any built-in method or tool that prevents operators from making mistakes.
How to use it: To refer to your own prophylactic measures for not screwing up.

A traditional poka-yoke could be physically designing parts in shapes that can only fit in one hole (like having different size nozzles for hoses to prevent them from being fitted in the wrong place.) When Toyota was a weaving company it designed looms with automatic shut-off devices triggered by faulty processes.

Yesterday Hetchen was reading a booklet that came with the latest issue of the British music magazine Q. She pointed out a great story, which I have decided is the coolest example of poka-yoke, especially one that has never been identified as such. We’re talking brown M&Ms here. To be precise, as the Thomsons would say, brown M&Ms, or the lack thereof. Ya know that apocryphal tale of rock stars throwing a fit when they discover that the promoter of a gig has failed to remove all the brown goodies from the bowl? Well, apparently it’s not only true, but true for a good reason.

According to Q, which quotes from David Lee Roth’s autobiography, the band Van Halen always insisted on having the de-browned candies in their dressing room prior to a show. In fact, they would write this demand into the contract with the promoter, burying this clause among other more prominent terms. Seeing just one brown M&M in the bowl immediately alerted the band that the promoter hadn’t honored their agreement, and so was likely to fail in more important matters. Q quotes Roth: “So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl….guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.” One gig at which brown candies appeared in the bowl was held by promoters who also failed to check the weight requirements of the stage, which sank under the band’s gear, causing thousands of dollars of damage (though no injuries.)

Man. I guess it really is such a fine line between stupid and clever.

Lucy goes off on a trip for a school project today for a week. Helping her pack, I’m trying to ensure that no mishaps can happen: tag the luggage with the proper information, pack with her with everything she needs. But I jwish there were foolproof poka-yokes to guarantee that everything goes right while she’s away. I know, that’s completely muddle-headed and not even healthy (the girl’s a wise 14 for God’s sake); but I can’t help it. As the French would say, “zat’s life.”

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