Mistake Proofing the Home Alarm System


As I've mentioned, my wife and I are in the process of moving from suburban Fort Worth to San Antonio. As we have potential buyers coming through the house, one thing I have to be mindful of is NOT turning on the home alarm system when leaving. As with many process improvements, it's tough breaking an old habit of always hitting the “ON” button on the way out the door.

Being a somewhat forgetful chap, how can I avoid turning on the alarm? If I turn it on, we might have a false alarm and it might annoy a real estate agent and potential buyer (something that seems like a bad idea). How can I error proof this?

The picture below shows the best I could come up with in limited time: a piece of packing tape with the word “NO” written on it.

It's by no means perfect error proofing. It doesn't absolutely prevent me from hitting that button when leaving before a scheduled showing. But, it was “quick and easy” and it's been effective so far. The first time I was about to leave after putting that up, I did a double take between the visual and the tactile feel of the somewhat-raised tape. I didn't set the alarm. I can, however, still set the alarm when going to bed at night.

I've seen similar situations where hospital labs or similar settings have actually placed a tiny cardboard or plastic box over a button to prevent it from being pressed accidentally. That would be more effective error proofing, but it would have taken more time (and time is a luxury when preparing to move). If this error proofing proves ineffective (if I tune out the NO and set the alarm someday), I could escalate to better error proofing (or I can do it proactively, given the time).

What other ideas do you have for handling this or other home error proofing situations?

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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. On a humorous note, I can still remember the video for the Genesis song “Age of Confusion”. It showed a Ronald Reagan look-alike (he was president then) laying in bed, with 2 buttons by him. “Nurse” and “Nuke”.

  2. My idea is basically like yours but would maybe stick a post-it note over it making the button not visible.

    My simple reminder to myself to remember something is just to dump something in front of the door. I am actually amazed how well this works. I figured I would sit there wondering what I was suppose to remember. But I don’t so I didn’t have to escalate to making a specific reminder…

    It is funny how some small things are remembered more fondly than seems warranted. On a return home to my parents house. My mom did like this automatic light sensor that turn on the light when entering the house from the garage. But didn’t like that the sensor would also go off as you moved around the room. I took a post it and blocked out half the field of vision for the sensor with a post it note. For whatever reason I really like that ridiculously easy improvement.

  3. I think a common “error-proofing” method for not forgetting keys/phone/wallet is by tossing them that morning into the shoes you’ll be wearing that day. I don’t subscribe to that idea – who knows what shoes I’ll wear and what if I step on my precious but fragile iPhone? – but I do always leave those items together right by the door so I grab them on the way out.

    Or, if I have a house with an attached garage I leave my keys/wallet in the car.

    When you first indicated the “no” label on the switch, my first thought was to tape an open box to the wall so the switch would be covered but accessible, but you beat me to it.

      • Mine is to put it in front of the door so I go through the door without stepping on it (I often don’t carry a mobile phone).

        When I did use the next to model I still would leave things sometimes (it would be an area that had lots of stuff I didn’t want to take to…). I did adjust to a clear area where I would only put stuff to take which did work fairly well but in front of the door is best when I really can’t forget it (more mistake-proof).

  4. I am glad the tape gives a tactile feel for the button because I was gonna give you crap about only placing warning/reminder signs to fix a problem!

    Lean Hospitals 1st edition page 138: “…go on a ‘gemba walk’ through a department looking for signs that remind or tell employeess to be careful. Each sign is an indicator of a process problem and evidence that the root cause of the problem has not been properly addressed through error-proffing.”

    The feel of the tape provides an additional signal to prevent error so it appears to be a good error-proofing step.

    The only other suggestion I would have is see if alarm has a timer where you reduce frequency of having to touch the button. If it could automatically turn on at night and off in the morning like a modern termostat, then you reduce chance of turning it on during the day.

    I do like the simple kaizen though. Often people go overboard with elaborate countermeasures when something quick and easy will suffice.

    • Brian – it’s good of you to question and challenge me on that. I did give that some thought. I think what I did here is better than the workplace warning signs I complain about because:

      1) I did it myself and it’s mainly for my own benefit, not a 24/7 staff of dozens of people

      2) It’s a very specific measure right on the button (as opposed to a general memo that’s hanging in the wall in another room or sent via email)

      But, it’s been simple and effective so far as I evaluate it via the PDSA mindset. If the system fails (meaning that I do set the alarm when I leave one day), I might need to change my countermeasure.

      • I need those signs! JK. Seriously though, I have an ongoing problem where I set up my light timer in the evening before I’m headed out on travel and then I turn off the light by mistake before going to bed. The timer only works if the light is in the on position. So I’ve been wrapping the lamp switch with tape so I get a tactile message that I shouldn’t turn it off. But just last week I did it anyway because I was tired and rushing. So alas my house was dark at night while I was gone. I still think it’s a good way to error proof, but I may need to add a “Is the light still on?” sign on my pillow. :-)

  5. How about taping a thumbtack with the point sticking out to the ON button? This is akin to the shock collar for the barking dog. You can use a pen point to activate if necessary.

  6. Hi Mark
    How about glueing a thumb tack to the ON button with the pin facing outwards? I think that will quickly retrain your habit…
    Hope you get a quick sale (with or without thumb tack included)!


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