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How to implement Japan’s iconic safety drill into your work and life

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How to implement Japan’s iconic safety drill into your work and life

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4 min read

Japan, rightly, has the reputation of having one of the world’s safest and most efficient rail transport systems. And one of the most important contributors to its impeccable safety record is a simple, inexpensive technique that can be used by anyone in almost any industry – it’s the simple system the Japanese call shisa kanko, or point-and-call.

Shisa kanko looks silly

It’s one of the things most tourists to Japan comment on – the way all railway workers constantly point at things, clearly enunciating mysterious words (in Japanese, of course, because – well – they are Japanese). And the fact that they wear Mickey Mouse-style white gloves does not help. But, while it does, admittedly, look a bit silly, it most definitely is not. So, perhaps, with a bit of thought, Westerners may learn to appreciate the benefits of shisa kanko, in the same way that many of us have recently stopped ridiculing the propensity of Japanese people for wearing masks in public (especially in public transport). Okay, we all understand the mask thing, but what is the thinking behind point-and-call? And would it work in a Western context in which we equate competency with the ability to ‘do it with my eyes closed’?

Why Shisa kanko works

While there are probably many things you can do ‘with your eyes closed’, you may find, if you think about it, that you’re not as efficient as you could be. When last did you search for your keys/cell phone/handbag? Probably yesterday. It’s something I do often, but I have learned a trick that I don’t use often enough. If I’m in a strange place – for example, someone else’s house – I know that I will leave my car keys in an unfamiliar spot, so I often say, out loud, to someone: ‘If I ask you where I left my keys, please tell me they are behind the potted aspidistra.’ And, you know what? I never have to ask – because, having said it out loud, I remember it. This works so well that I often ask my dog to remind me, saying, for example: ‘Tori, don’t let me leave the house without taking that library book over there.’

And that, in a nutshell, is what Shisa kanko is. Looking at something, pointing at it, and enunciating the important aspects of it. Quite simply, it means that you are paying attention.

But Shisa kanko is just a load of BUMPFF

Granted, it does look and feel a bit silly to point at the piece of equipment in question, and say, e.g.: ‘The front end loader is in gear,’ or ‘The alarm system is armed.’ But there are some industries that have traditionally used a modified form of pointing and calling – most notably the film industry and the airline industry, in both of which mistakes can be extremely costly (in the former) and/or (as in the latter) fatal.

Back in the day when films were filmed on film (i.e. celluloid), the director would call out after every scene: ‘Check the gate.’ And someone would – literally – look through the ‘gate’ or lens to check that there were no ‘hairs’ stuck in the gate, because this would cause an ugly mark on every scene filmed thereafter – a very expensive mistake. (Just in case you’re wondering, the ‘hairs’ are not from the wigs in the wardrobe department, from the coat of the shaggy curs playing Lassie, or from the leading lady’s lovely locks. They’re tiny fragments of celluloid that can be shaved off at any time during filming, which is why the gate needs to be checked after every single scene.) And, yes, the person whose duty this is knows they have to do it but, because the consequences could be so costly, the director says it out loud anyway – dozens, or possibly hundreds of times a day.

And that’s also why pilots have always had a mnemonic for pre-takeoff and pre-landing checks – the acronym BUMPFF, which has become synonymous with time-consuming admin. In the old propellor-driven planes, the pilot would – literally – say each word, while checking that each element was as it should be. In the more sophisticated passenger jet aircraft we are familiar with, the pilot and co-pilot go through a verbal checklist, with one reading off the elements, while the other checks them, and verbally confirms that everything is as it should be. According to an article in Flight Safety Australia, this industry-standard cross-checking can be enhanced by point-and-call, so perhaps it will be standard on Qantas flights soon.

Shisa kanko in New York

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has partially implemented point-and-call on their subway system. When a train pulls into a station, the conductor opens all the doors, but they have to be sure the train is in exactly the right spot otherwise the carriages at the ends of the train my open inside the tunnel, which could be disastrous. This is achieved simply by aligning the central carriage with a black-and-white-striped panel. So, all the conductor needs to do is check that they can see the panel before opening the door. But, since 2013, they have to point at it as well. (They don’t have to say: ‘That is a black-and-white-striped panel’, but perhaps they should.)

Implementing Shisa kanko in your life and work

Next time you’re doing an occupational safety audit, isolate areas in which employees tend to be a bit blasé, or tasks that they habitually do ‘with their eyes closed’, because these may well benefit from some Shisa kanko.

And, surprisingly, Shisa kanko can be effective in streamlining your personal life, especially if you have a few OCD tendencies. If you’ve ever stopped dead in your tracks, and questioned whether you left the stove on, locked the house or your car, or set the alarm, you may want to consider adding Shisa kanko to your daily routine. If, as you leave the house, you turn around and, pointing, say: ‘All the lights are off (if one isn’t, you’ll notice it when you point), the stove is off, I have my keys in my hand, the alarm is on, the dog is in (or out), the door is locked.’ Try it – you’ll find it makes your life much easier.

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