Management Poka-Yoke

We're accustomed to thinking of poka-yoke (error-proofing) as something for a manufacturing assembly line, or at the very least, for a machine. In this standard conception, there are fail-safe devices (some cool, some pretty basic) to ensure errors are prevented. Electric eyes in elevators keep doors from closing on people. Some hotel rooms are equipped with a room key holder that turns off the power when the key is removed to prevent electricity from flowing to the room when it's vacant. Gas caps on cars are attached with a cord to prevent drivers from leaving it on the roof. (I left a cap near Grants Pass, OR, if anyone happens to see it....)

But why not institute poka-yoke for management? Why not create systems that prevent bad management practices from taking hold?

I thought of this yesterday when reading the NYTimes interview with Kevin Sharer, chief executive of Amgen. When he ascended to the big chair, he talked to the top 150 people in the company one at a time for an hour.

 I seek feedback, because that’s the only way that you can grow as a C.E.O., which is a very isolating job. And so if you don’t create mechanisms to get authentic feedback, you won’t.

Sharer sees this isolation as a major "error." It might lead to, oh, I don't know, a $6000 shower curtain. Or a $1400 garbage can. So why not institute some poka-yoke to prevent the problem?

Every year I have the head of human resources at Amgen who reports to me conduct an evaluation of me done by my team that they write up and then present to me and the board. And that’s an uncomfortable process, of course. You hope, as C.E.O., for the team to say, “Boy, boss, you did a great job this year, are we lucky to have you.” And, by gosh, every year they’ve come up with three or four things that are quite authentic that I ought to do better. So you’ve got to create those kinds of feedback loops.

But wait! There's more!

There are probably four things I do [to stay in touch with employees at all levels]. First of all, we take an all-staff survey every two years that is very comprehensive and very broad, and I really read that closely. One of the questions is: What kind of job do you think Kevin Sharer is doing? So you want to get some direct feedback? There it is. I read all the write-in comments.

Second, I’ll go out on rides with sales reps, just me and the sales rep calling on doctors. I try to do that four times a year and spend a day with them. I visit every factory every year, and have small focus groups with people.

I give probably 10 town hall meetings a year where 150 or 200 people come in, and the Q. & A.’s are robust. We have a very effective human resource department here that I listen to broadly, and so you just try to get feedback every way you can. This is fundamentally an isolating kind of job. And so if you don’t take affirmative action to break the isolation, you will be isolated.

What's striking (to me, anyway) about Sharer's approach to management is that he doesn't whine about the exigencies or constraints of the job. He just finds a way to poka-yoke the aspects he finds dangerous.

By contrast, I work with a lot of managers who complain that their schedules don't allow them to spend enough time with their staff. Or that their email burden is so overwhelming that they don't talk -- really talk -- to people. And while I won't deny that managing isn't easy (lord knows I've screwed up enough communication on the job), Sharer's example is pretty powerful. Why not create a system that guarantees you'll get the results you want?

So the question to you: what would you poka-yoke? And how would you do it?