Mary Poppendieck tells this great story about when the manufacturing plant she worked for transitioned to Lean. When they started, she says, they had this separate QA group whose job it was to find defects in the products after they were already made (sound familiar?). But then they took these QA folks and moved them out onto the production line to figure out how to make stuff without defects in the first place. Huh! Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that for software?
This is the idea behind Poka-Yoke, or mistake proofing. It means setting things up in such a way that prevents people from making mistakes.
You’ve probably seen this before in product design – monitor cables with male & female ends that prevent us from plugging them in the wrong way. Or in software with controls like dropdown lists (male, female) that prevent users from entering incorrect values (I’ll let you use your imagination).
Toyota brings this idea onto their production lines with devices that prevent incompatible parts from fitting together. But also with poka-yoke methods that detect problems and shut down the machine (stop the line) or activate alarms so people are immediately alerted to correct it. So even when it’s not possible to completely prevent errors from occurring, they still prevent those errors from entering production. And they can then fix those errors immediately before they get a chance to compound into serious problems.
So How Do We Poka-Yoke our Code?