Emergent Behavior in a Microcosm — Poka-Yoke


A sunny day in May, Cavtat, Croatia, on the Dalmatian Coast — 2008

Emergent behavior in social systems, especially when they’re larger, is complex.  You never really know completely what will happen when you start rearranging the pieces.  So it’s helpful to explain how to nibble around the edges until you develop your own systems thinking consequentiality before going full-bore with a large reorganization.  That doesn’t mean you can’t fix things like inserting duplex communication channels to improve overall empathy, and starting a process of evolving up the empathetic ladder — unless you’re running galley slaves, it’s kind of tough to lose.  But once you get to a certain level of performance, it just gets harder — and time scales get longer.  More people have to be self-reflective and mindful.  And accelerating that has been an age-old problem.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your feet wet with the details.  One of the best ways is with what’s called Poka-yoke — a Japanese term for error-proofing, and a major feature of the Toyota Management System.  Instead of telling people the right way of doing something, and expecting immediate actualization, create a way so that it’s impossible for things to go wrong.  The iconic Poka-yoke is now in every automatic transmission car.  It used to be that certain automatic transmission cars, if they were left in gear, could be started, with an incumbent leaping-forward if you forgot to put them in Park.  Now, any vehicle with an automatic transmission must be put in Park or Neutral to start, and must have the brake depressed.  No brake, no start.  No unpredictable leaping forward.  That’s Poka-Yoke.

There’s a bazillion of these in your home, and all have added to our aggregate safety.  You can’t start the Cuisinart without closing the lid correctly.  The mower has to have a safety bar retracted in order to start the mower.  Have fun with this — if you’re bored with the crossword puzzle, or you have kids, see if you can identify ten in ten minutes.

One of the things Poka-Yoke did as well was start moving the needle on the idea that people are idiots — and that what Poka-Yoke really does is ‘idiot proof’ things.  It’s no surprise that it’s called ‘mistake-proofing.’  I had a student group work with Genie Industries on a project once, and the manager brought up the concept. One of the students in the group said “Oh — you mean making it idiot-proof.”  The manager jumped down his throat.  “The people that work with me are not idiots.  But everyone can get distracted, and that shouldn’t be a reason to lose a finger.”  An exemplary example of expanded timescales, probabilisitic development, and Communitarian v-Meme enforcement.  When we Poka-Yoke, we implement empathetic development that floats all our boats a little higher.

I am big on establishing empathetic protocols with students in the Industrial Design Clinic (IDC) as ladders for their development.  Empathetic protocols are inherently meta-Poka-Yokes.  The classic one the kids are exposed to is the conference call protocol.  When my undergraduate seniors start in my class, they are very much little Authoritarians.  Even calling the project sponsor is an activity that makes them uncomfortable.  Their major concern is bugging someone who they think is far more important than them — so if the sponsor doesn’t call back, they will sit and wait.  Being Authoritarians, they don’t put any value on their time, and they honestly can’t conceive that the sponsor MIGHT value their time and want them to get started — and just might be too busy and forget to get the ball rolling.

So I force them to conference with the sponsor.  They are given a simple protocol — no less than two people on the phone with the sponsor at any time (at least at the beginning of the relationship).  One is the talker, the other is the writer.  At the end of the call, within ten minutes, minutes of the call should be posted on the web with a request from the sponsor to confirm.  If the sponsor doesn’t confirm by the next call, a request is made for the sponsor to confirm before the new meeting gets started.

All this may seem mundane, but for students used to their work not mattering at all, other than for a grade, it becomes transformative practice.  The emergent behavior is that students become aware of the fact that what they write matters, as it is confirmed by someone they view as an authority.  They have to review and fact-check with each other, so they all share the same story.  Many times, in the course of a more complex project, there will be modest specification change — so their Legalistic v-Meme is also activated.  I’ve told them multiple times that in order for the specification to change (and my kids are run by their spec in my class) it must be documented, approved by the sponsor, and then re-posted in the new specifications document.  If it’s not, and they embark on a changed trajectory, and the customer complains — the customer is right.

Such empathetic protocols, besides making sure the students finish on time, serve as empathetic ladders for development.  They are meta-Poka-yokes — and by insisting on them, I am Poka-yoking my own process for their development.  That way, I don’t have to be involved, which then transfers more responsibility to them, and develops their agency. All of this by virtue of my NOT having to intervene means that their improved practice, and their personal growth become emergent.  Which means I have one less thing to worry about.  And that makes me celebrate, and reaffirm my own personal motto:

There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing something wonderful happen that owes nothing to my own, personal genius.

That’s the real beauty of emergence.  Because once we get the little stuff fixed by building it into the dynamics of our social system, as a manager, we can concentrate on frying bigger fish.  And it’s a virtuous spiral up the Spiral.  What’s not to like?

Takeaway — if there’s a larger point to be made, it’s mining successful paradigms in all systems for surface-level knowledge assurance and coherence can lead to meta-paradigms.  This is a wide-open field — and, in my opinion, the future of management science.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s