Error Proofing

Error proofing is making things “easy to get right and difficult to get wrong”.  It is a small but very powerful idea.

Improving customer service is easy, all you have to do is:

  1. Find out what your customer is unhappy about
  2. Work out what the cause of that unhappiness is
  3. Fix that cause

In labour intensive service industries the cause is invariably people not doing what they are supposed to do, creating errors.  Usually the people are “fixed” by:

  • Training programs
  • Incentives or discipline
  • Quality checks

The problem with these solutions is that they are only as good as the people who carry them out.

  • How good is your quality checker at checking quality?
  • How good is your trainer at training?

We always seem to “fix” the same thing twice.

Error proofing doesn’t rely on people.  It uses mechanisms to reduce the chances of the error happening, (the red line under a missppelling as I type this post).

Error proofing can be preventative, stopping the mistake from happening in the first place (a drop down list is preventative, it stops you entering the wrong data).

Error proofing can be detective, pointing out that the mistake has happened before it causes too much damage (an exceptions report is detective, it will tell you if your data is wrong).

Error proofing helps the fix stay fixed.

The best error proofing mechanisms are so clever you don’t even notice them: when you plug in your PC you are messing with 240 volts, between them they could kill you, and you never even think about it.

If your employees have to think about it, it isn’t making it easy

And if it isn’t easy it is difficult

And if it is difficult, your employees won’t do it

No matter how much you train, reward or punish them

Employees are like that, admit it, you are too.


Fool Proofing:

BTW fool proofing is not the same as error proofing, there is no helping fools, no matter how hard you try.

Error Proofing

Read another opinion

Image by crucially


  1. Hello James

    I have enjoyed reading this post – you have shone a light on a key facet of organisational design. In my view organisations have not been designed around human beings. The opposite is true: human beings are forced to fit into an ideological view of human beings. The result is that all kinds of “errors” occur that then require more control which in turn leaves scope for more “errors” and then more control until eventually the people that do the work are simply not motivated by the work and…..

    In the service business I find that we pay one set of people (marketing, sales, product development, mangement) to create ‘waste’. And then we pay people (not that much) in the Customer Service function to tidy up the mess created by the more highly paid people. It would be smarter not to create the waste in the first place.


  2. Morris Jacobs says:

    I agree with Maz, why do we employ clever people to create waste that the customer service function has to tidy up?

  3. Hi James,
    I thought I agreed with everything you wrote about but then realised I had an issue with something. You list out 3 things used to ‘fix’ employees:
    Training programs
    Incentives or discipline
    Quality checks
    What about who and what skills/characteristics you select?

    Another ‘fix’ or is that more preventive than curative?


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