Too Clever By Half?


I know it's weird that I have my camera in a bathroom, but it was a solo bathroom and I always have a camera in my pocket when doing Lean work. I ran across this papertowel dispenser and it wasn't until my third or fourth attempt that I figure out how the darn thing worked. The designer may have been “too clever by half,” as our pal Jim Womack likes to say.

It's almost too obvious in this picture, my real life experience was frustrating.
  1. Try to pull the paper down manually… doesn't stick out enough
  2. Wave hands in front… no automatic sensor
  3. Look for lever on side… no handle

The handle that dispenses the paper is the light gray vertical piece on the right side. The problem with the design, in my humble opinion, is that the handle matches (too well) the mirror image on the left side, which is not a handle. It's “elegant” in that you have no unsightly dispenser handle/arm/whatever you call it.

But, who cares about elegance? Make it obvious and simple and unambiguous to the users. I think the same lesson applies to our visual controls in the workplace. Don't try to be clever. Be obvious. I think this seems obvious in the picture, but it sure wasn't obvious to me. Is the design too clever, or am I too dense? Is user always right?

I'm influenced (I think) by the amazing book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, He argued that user controls should be intuitive and should be mapped visually to the function and layout. For example, the knobs on your cooktop stove should visually mirror the layout of the burners (like this, not like this) — original page link. Also check out Darnell's Bad Designs, if you're interested in the subject (and his example of good stovetop design)

And yes, as much as I complain about hand hygiene in hospitals, I do follow that particular standardized work.

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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. The advantage of this type of lever is that you don’t have to touch it with your clean hands. You can use your sleeve and get the paper hands-free.
    This doesn’t explain the symmetrical feature on the left side.

  2. Andy, good point about not having to use your hands. That’s the same reason experts say you should use the paper towel to turn off the water and to open the door on the way out.

    But, that light grey handle/level could have been neon yellow maybe!


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