The Point of Pointing and Calling

By Jon Miller Updated on May 9th, 2020

A colleague pointed out and called attention to a question about the practice of shisa kanko so I thought it worth a few words. This is the safety practice of “pointing and calling”. Its roots are obscure, but it has been standard practice in railroads in Japan for over a century. Today the practice has spread from transportation to construction, utilities and industry.

Travelers to Japan may have seen uniformed railways workers on train platforms pointing and calling “yoshi” for “good” or “o-lai” meaning “all right”. Many people who have visited or worked in plants under Japanese ownership or management are taught to point to key safety features and call out “okay” before continuing their work. To those who aren’t familiar with pointing and calling, it can seem strange. What are these people pointing at? Who are they talking to?

The point of pointing and calling is to heighten a person’s mental focus at key moments on the job where accidents are likely to occur. What is the purpose of calling out, “lockout engaged” pointing to the lockout mechanism, and saying “OK” if nobody else is there to hear it? If we can see that the lockout is engaged, why waste a few seconds telling our self it is so?

This active safety behavior has been demonstrated to reduce human error by nearly 85%, according to a Japan Railways research report. Workers who completed a simple task without pointing and calling made 2.38 errors per 100 actions, while workers who practiced pointing and calling made only 0.38 mistakes per 100 actions.

This very simple act of pointing and calling out the name, status or condition as being OK works for several reasons.

Neurons that fire together, wire together. Human memory is reinforced through repetition. We may know that engaged the safety lock is important, but unless we keep telling ourself this to keep it top of mind, its prominence in our brain fades. Repeated pointing and calling strengthens neural connections to the idea of safety.

Target in sight. When we point a finger at an object and look at it, our field of view narrows to within 5 degrees fingertips of our fingertips. This allows us to see the objects better without distraction. Should there be an abnormality we are more likely to notice it.

Haste makes waste. Humans make errors when we hurry, cut corners or permit our brains to fill in gaps with false or assumed information. The few seconds it takes to point and call slows down the process just enough to allow us to pay attention to what’s important.

Think better with exercise. Physical activity of any kind has been shown to activate our brain, compared to performing mental tasks while being completely still. When we call and point, we activate our hands, forearms, jaws and tongue, stimulating our brain and making our mental processes more effective.

The motions and vocalizations don’t need to be vigorous or exaggerated. The point of pointing and calling is not to alert others to what you are doing, but to focus your own attention to it. The voice volume, arm angle or even the choice of words don’t matter so much as the intent to check in before starting a task or continuing to the next one.

Pointing and calling applies to everyone, not just to people working with heavy equipment. Personally, I practice point and mumble when going through a checklist, proofreading, reviewing form data before submitting, etc. Mistakes happen when I hit send too quickly, having neglected to first poke my finger around the screen.

For whatever reason, pointing and calling is not widespread in the West. Perhaps cultures that highly value individualism chafe at being told vocalize and gesture every time we do something that we darned well know how to do. Pointing and calling should never be empty gestures based on compliance. The individual who understands the key safety or quality risks of the task must decide how to do it. The question for each of us is, “What gestures and words will help focus my mind to protect me and my customer at this critical process?”

Habits that call attention to safety are especially important when we face new risks, disruptions to our routines, or changes to working conditions. As we go back to work, we re-enter hazardous environments or restart familiar activities or equipment that we’ve been away from for a while. It’s a good time to review opportunities for pointing and calling to keep safety key points in mind.

  1. Steve Dale

    May 15, 2020 - 7:46 am

    I was not aware of history of pointing and calling, but definitely see the benefit of those few critical seconds of extra focus.
    I had an experience visiting a plant where pointing and calling was used before crossing fork truck aisles. As is often the case, the process was misapplied and the resulting scene of the operators going to lunch, pointing and calling in each direction at every crossing, would have made a great viral video.

    • Jon Miller

      May 15, 2020 - 10:19 am

      That’s a humorous story. But a pity. It’s all too common for organizations to adopt a practice without first understanding its intent and agreeing on its value.

  2. John DiMaggio

    May 15, 2020 - 7:50 am

    I saw this on a TV show about trains recently. The engineer would point to the screen and call out every time he passed a speed marker or checkpoint. The concept really resonated with me immediately. When we put baby locks on our kitchen cabinets, I remembered this technique. A bit timid to try it, I’d halfheartedly glance around the room and point to each cabinet to make sure the lock was on.
    Now that I understand the theory and science behind it, it makes even more sense! I just did a full walk through and pointed and called out every single cabinet lock, baby gate, and door. About 1/3 were not fully engaged! “But honey, I swear it was closed!”

    • Jon Miller

      May 15, 2020 - 10:20 am

      Thanks for sharing John. Great illustration of the point. We can feel a lot less silly pointing at things and talking to yourself when we remember that you are keeping loved ones or colleagues safe.

  3. Dieter Lange

    June 3, 2020 - 5:49 pm

    Excellent article:)
    We used the technique in a call center before payments were posted thereby reducing errors significantly.

  4. Annie Maheux

    June 11, 2020 - 9:48 am

    I first learned about pointing and calling reading “Toyota Talent”. There are a few paragraphs about it. I found it very interesting back then but got a lot of pull back from management. Thank you to have brought it back to my mind. If I want to learn more about it and its results in manufacturing, what would be your suggestions?

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