Error Proofing Excel


I spend a good amount of time working in Excel, analyzing data and such. I often accidentally hit the “F1” key in a clumsy attempt to hit “Esc”. The keys are right next to each other and each key is “half height” on my laptop keyboard, meaning they are close together (see the picture to the left).

Every time I hit F1, my brand new laptop, with Windows 2000, goes into fits and convulsions trying to load the Microsoft Office help window.

My computer is practically useless for 3 to 5 minutes while help loads. For one, this seems unacceptable for something like a “help” application, to be so slow.

I know I'm just complaining about something in my weekly work, but we can use it to think about lean. Secondly, it sure would have been a thoughtful error proofing on Microsoft's part to assign “Help” to a key that's harder to hit by accident, such as F9. I know the history of function keys, before we had a mouse on every PC, but still, I think it's time to rethink those function keys, especially from a user perspective.

Think about this when designing industrial machinery or having something built. Is the user interface and/or buttons “error proofed”? Make sure buttons that are critical like “Emergency Stop” are easy to find and that you can't accidentally hit a different button (or accidentally hit E-Stop when it's not needed).

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Does Lenovo routinely sell “brand new” Thinkpads with Windows 2000?

    I think your problems wouldn’t be as severe if your computer and OS weren’t half a decade old.

  2. “Brand new” means new to me and less than a year old after production. Windows 2000 in an unfortunate side effect of a corporate IT structure that moves slowly. I should have Windows XP, I agree, but that isn’t my point. The keyboard/function key design could still be better.

  3. Hi Mark! Great post on waste that most of us live with if you regularly use a computer keyboard. I have two dell laptops, one purchased 4 years ago and another last year, both with windows xp. I experience that same problem of hitting F1 accidently when trying to hit F2, Esc or even the numbers 1 or 2. I really don’t like the F1 help key. It is pure muda to me. Some may say that this problem is an operator error (I also suffer from keyboard dyslexia at times). Whatever my keyboard skill level along with my key stroke mistakes, this is the only button that holds me back by opening and then closing an unwanted function.

  4. Mark, I thought I had a reasonable idea here for poka yoke on the F1, until I checked out the link curiouscat made above. That’s a good one, to add the single line to a start up code. Way better than mine.

    My idea was lower tech, but it has worked for me on keyboards. I borrow some fingernail polish from a co-worker (no, I don’t have any of my own :-) ) and I will either paint the key i DON’T want to use red, or paint the key I WANT to use some shade of green that catches the eye. I even did this on a company-owned computer and it was not a problem.

    Sounds dumb, bit it works. Don’t many lean ideas? And I’m WAY OVER worrying about that!! Plus, for my 52 year old eyes, it makes a difference.

    Kaizen, all the way.

  5. One other comment, Mark, because I think it is illustrative of problem-solving in general.

    An anonymous user above suggested the problem was your OS and hardware. And then threw a brick at a “decade old” package.

    OK, probably an Apple user. Probably right. But most of us don’t have a large choice on operating platforms or hardware to use. And tossing hand gernades at an unfixable issue only adds stress and does nothing to improve the situation.

    Poka Yoke seeks to deal with the situation as it is and improve it, within the realm of control of the user. In most groups, there seems to be one or two who find more comfort in posing an unworkable solution than in facing the situation as it is. I have found it best to identify this tendency when it arises, deal with it and get the group to address the situation as it is.


  6. Thanks for the tip, Curious Cat. I’ll have to pose other real lean problems to see what help I get :-)

    As for the comment about the first post, yeah, that wasn’t very productive. The snotty tone of the “new computers don’t have Win2000” did NOTHING to solve the problem. You’re right, that’s NOT the attitude I would want on one of my lean teams.

    I think it’s one of the 10 Hirano commandments of lean to focus on what can be rather than what can’t be, something like that.


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