Error-Proofing our way to a Cleaner Planet

An article in today’s New York Times on how many colleges in the Northeast have eliminated the use of cafeteria trays in order to prevent food waste (and cut down on the dreaded “freshman 15”) reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a friend, and darn smart industrial engineer, about the best ways to change environmental behavior.

Poka-yoke” he said. 
“Er, what?”
Poka-yoke, it’s a Japanese term.”
“Like tamagotchi or kaiju?”
“No. Not like that at all.” 

Poka-yoke (pronounced “pokah-yokey”), he went on to explain, is the concept of mistake-proofing.  Essentially, it seeks to create a system that makes it easy to do the right thing and difficult (if not impossible) to do the wrong thing. It stems from the quality movement, and the Toyota Production System specifically, where it was used to prevent worker error or injury by designing the possibility of occurrence out of the process.  There are examples of poka-yoke in our lives everyday.  If your car has ever prevented you from locking the keys inside, you’ve experienced it.  Ever try to take the key out of your automatic vehicle’s ignition while in gear?  You can’t.  Poka-yoke won’t let you.  If you’ve never been crushed by a file cabinet, you’ve benefited (most won’t let you open more than one drawer at a time). [Find other examples from everyday life here

It seems to me that my industrial engineer friend and the food service people at Skidmore College (among others) are onto something.  How do we crack the notoriously difficult challenge of changing peoples’ environmental behavior?  Making everyday tasks environmentally error-proof might be a powerful solution- at least partially – to many of our most frustrating environmental dilemmas.   

Hotels in Europe and Asia are already on top of it.  In order to save energy and prevent guests from leaving on lights, televisions or other appliances, room keys are often required to be inserted into the wall to activate circuits.  When you leave, you take the key with you, cutting off power to the room.  This is a simple and elegant solution that results in huge cost savings and environmental benefits.  We need more thinking along these lines.   

So, when thinking about behavior change, think poka-yoke. It’s not nearly as annoying as a tamagotchi, nor as terrifying as a kaiju


  • Chris Plante | 8 years ago

    Nice one Andrew. Glad you are making good use of that engineer. I wish I had cash to collaborate more closely with you. I'll catch up with you more substantively via a regular email post. Cheers, Chris

  • jenniferk | 8 years ago

    Hi Andrew,

    I completely agree that behavior change is key to environmental change. I love the term poka-yoke as it is fun to say and easy to remember. If only more of us thought that environmental behaviorial change was as easy as saying poka-yoke. I wish that American hotels would adopt the same energy efficiency room keys that the European hotels use and don't understand why we haven't gone there yet.

    Imagine if American office buildings operated the same way and that each time you left and locked your office door your lights, computers and all electric usage went into hibernation mode. As Buildings account for more than 70 percent of the electricity demand and more than 50 percent of the natural gas demand, if we had such a key like those in European hotels, imagine how much energy we would save?

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog. Our community site, helps companies get started with their sustainability efforts with a focus on profitability. If you are interested in learning more about us, please visit It is free to join our growing community! And here is a link to an intro article which says what we are all about.


  • when thinking about behavior change, think poka-yoke. It’s not nearly as annoying as a tamagotchi, nor as terrifying as a kaiju. it's a good way.

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