- Poka-Yoke is a Japanese management style created by Toyota executive Shigeo Shingo in the 1960s that focuses on mistake-proofing operations.
- Furniture-maker Allsteel has relied on it since the mid-1990s, and now it’s playing a critical role in the company’s coronavirus response.
- To make it safe for employees to return to the office, Allsteel is using poka-yoke to mistake-proof the facility.
- On top of removing desks and creating new products that promote social distancing, the company is taking extra precautions by giving each worker specified markers for whiteboards that act as dividers and other new additions.
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When Shigeo Shingo first sought to implement the concept of Poka-Yoke in Toyota’s manufacturing process in the 1960s, he referred to it as a method to “idiot-proof” product development.
Lore has it he quickly changed the term to “mistake-proof” after an employee burst into tears at the word “idiot.”
Decades later, Poka-Yoke has taken on new life in the coronavirus pandemic.
The goal of the concept is to create processes under which mistakes are minimized. That can mean anything from ensuring products are assembled correctly by only allowing a part to fit one way, to giving pilots different meals during flights in case one gets sick from the food.
The office-furniture maker Allsteel has relied on Poka-Yoke since the mid-1990s and continues to rely on Japanese consultants for advice on how to continue to abide by its principles.
Now, that mindset is helping the Muscatine, Iowa-based company create new products to help clients safely return employees to the office. And its own office is being used as a test bed.
But while companies around the world are quickly overhauling their office spaces and typical operating models to try to get workers back into the office, redesigning floor plans is only a part of the challenge.
And that’s where Poka-Yoke comes in. Allsteel is trying to marry revamped designs with failproof systems that ensure employees adhere to the changes.
“What we are trying to do post-COVID is take the workplace to a level where we can guide the human population to provide safe social distancing practices,” President Kris Yates told Business Insider. “It’s really a lot about the protocols, because you can’t design your way out of people doing what we are asking them to do.”
Yates and Lisa Miller, director of product insights and applications at Allsteel’s parent HNI Corp., walked Business Insider through how it is using Poka-Yoke to create a safer workplace.
The first step in the process of returning workers to the office is making sure they feel safe — like removing chairs from desks to create more space,
Signage around the office also reminds workers of new social distancing protocols.
Dividers between walkways and work spaces create more personal space for employees.
Greenery can also be used to both divide spaces and inject more of the outside world into enclosed offices.
But Allsteel has also gone a step further and “mistake-proofed” the facility by adding new protocols and requirements for employees.
“We can put up all the signs we want. We can take every other seat out. But introduce the human element and that’s the wildcard,” said Miller.
Each worker has their own dedicated marker, for example, to use on the dividers that also operate as whiteboards.
And for chairs that need to be blocked off, the company is being careful to pick tape colors that don’t prompt nervousness.
“If you think of yellow caution tape like at a police scene, that is only going to impact the physiological comfort in a negative way,” said Miller. “It’s product, but it’s also people and process.”
Allsteel is also using new furniture designs to act as a natural barrier to keep employees six feet apart.
The focus is on integrating “products and solutions that are effective and multi-purpose,” said Miller.
The company is also using materials that are inherently bleach-cleanable and don’t produce gaps or other small spaces once constructed that would be more difficult to reach through standard cleaning methods.
Polygonal shapes can help define personal space for users and create a natural distance between workers.
Not only is it a more efficient use of material than just keeping a rectangular table and removing chairs, but, Miller said, the design also prevents employees from ignoring advice from health professionals and sitting close to one another.
“We’re under a new challenge in that way to think about things that can be multi-purpose,” she added.
New clean desk mandates and increased sanitation efforts also help to keep peace of mind among employees.
To promote psychological safety, Allsteel is even thinking about the scent of the cleaning products used.
“You have that visual reminder that things are happening,” said Miller. “The bleach smell is a good thing maybe at first … but over time that may be a deterrent as well.”
Signs like this one remind employees to clean surfaces in common areas between use.
And “yin-yang” setups promotes smaller group gatherings and keep individuals facing in opposite directions.
New office products combine height adjustability with physical separation.
The product meets both the demands of some employees who favor a standing desk and the new safety requirements that help prevent the spread of the virus.
“We’ve built that in but we’ve segregated the collaboration space, so you can still have your distancing but you’re in a smaller footprint,” said Miller.
“Stadium-style” seating can also make employees more comfortable working in collaborative environments.
These changes and others ensure that employees can safely return to the office and resume a revamped version of their normal behavior.
Daily office life will certainly change post-coronavirus. But simple changes — like putting more barriers between walkways and tables — can give employees some semblance of their former routine.
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