A Whiteboard Accident Waiting to Happen – How to Error Proof?


Yesterday, Jim Benson and I were facilitating a “Lean for Knowledge Work” class at Geekdom in San Antonio and had a great time with attendees from healthcare and high tech companies.

We facilitated some “Lean Coffee” discussion sessions in a conference room. While the format is facilitated with sticky notes and pens, I noticed the whiteboard in the room had an accident just waiting to happen.


The blue marker is different than the other three Expo markers. The blue one clearly says “FLIPCHART MARKER.”

There is no flip chart in the room.

This is an accident waiting to happen.

It's a matter of time before somebody grabs the blue marker and writes on the whiteboard.

When this happens, many organizations, unfortunately, would blame the individual. “You should have been more careful. You should have double checked. Don't you know to use only erasable markers on a whiteboard?”

Many organizations might react to a marker mishap by posting a sign that says “Whiteboard markers only,” but a permanent marker might still appear, since signs are the poorest form of “error proofing.”

A better, more proactive organization would find ways of preventing such a mistake.

In a previous job, I tried to mistake proof this sort of situation by buying flip chart markers that weren't round — they were somewhat flat and didn't roll if you set them on a table. I can't find these markers on Amazon.com or Staples.com, so they are either not made anymore or I'm searching badly.

The “flat” markers were visually and tactilely different when you picked them up. Once you knew the system (round = whiteboard and flat = permanent), it was more difficult to make a mistake (but not impossible). It was better mistake proofing than a sign, but not perfect.

I got a great suggestion via Twitter yesterday:

at our org we have standard practice of wrapping permanent markers with rubber bands to differentiate

It seems like that would work, as well. Again, not perfect mistake proofing, but better than nothing.

Does your organization have a trick like this? Do you have any stories about shifting from a culture of blaming “be careful” statements to one that's proactive and practices mistake proofing?

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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. I kind of had the same thought about using colored tape or rubber bands on dry erase markers, but the flat flipchart marker is a good thought too.

    To error proof, I think the improvement would have to come from the marker factory or company R&D. What if there was a marker tip design that would draw out ink using capillary action on the paper/flipchart but the lack of capillary action would prevent ink from being drawn on the dry erase board?

    Also, I learned that permanent marker can be removed from dry erase boards by writing over the permanent ink with dry erase marker ink. The times I have tried it I have been successful but I also don’t make a habit of running trials on expensive boards for risk of rendering them useless in the event it doesn’t work. :D

    • Anything involving “capillary action” would probably increase the cost of the paper or markers by 10x?


      Thanks for sharing the trick about writing over with the dry erase. I forgot about that one.

      • Well, capillary action is what pulls the ink through the felt tip with standard markers. The voids in the paper fibers pull the ink from the felt, and the new voids in the felt are replenished by the ink reservoir. So capillary action is a pull system.

        That doesn’t explain why dry erase marker ink sticks to dry erase marker boards, though. Maybe the dry erase surface has voids? Okay, I need to stop thinking about this.

  2. Comment from Facebook:

    “I only buy dry erase markers and use them on flip charts.”

    That reminds me of the error proofing involving gas and diesel fuel nozzles. It’s far less damaging to put regular gas into a diesel engine than vice versa, so the diesel nozzle is the larger of the two.

    Using a whiteboard marker on a flip chart is not damaging to the paper, of course. But, I’ve found that dry erase markers don’t write as smoothly on paper.

    The cost difference seems negligible. Even if dry erase markers were more expensive, it might be cheaper to use them all of the time instead of repairing or replacing a white board that’s damaged by permanent markers.

    • I actually like this idea better than mine. The problem you’re looking to solve is “permanent marker on dry erase board.” Remove use of permanent marker, therefore no impact on dry erase boards.

      I agree that dry erase marker on paper isn’t as sharp or smooth, but if it’s sharp enough for everyone to read and see then I think it meets the participants’ expectations, yes?

  3. We have flip charts in rooms without white boards and no flip charts in rooms with white boards to reduce the margin of error. Also, rather than worry about damaging expensive white boards we use dry erase paint and frame the area to mistake proof writing on the wrong walls. Tul makes a nice dry erase marker that is not round, has a rubberized barrel and are also magnetic.

  4. First of, excellent blog post Mark! I follow every single blog post of yours with great attention. This initially made me ask “Why do they have flip chart marker with the dry erase markers at the same place?” “Is having flip charts and dry erase boards at the same location essential to the process?” “Can either one of them completely eliminated to simplify the process?” “What are the alternatives to them? Smart boards? iPads and projectors?; this way meeting notes will be accessible to everybody without losing any information.” Using root cause analysis with mistake proofing may not only eliminate future mistakes, but also yield to potential cost savings and process improvements.

  5. For the first time in 30 yrs of being in the business world, I used a flip chart marker on a white board in error last week–at a client! Fortunately the white board cleaner, took care of it because I realized it right away. I looked carefully at the marker, too, before using it. The largest words were “water-based” and the smallest words were “flip chart.” I’ve never heard of the brand.

    While I like all of the error-proofing suggestions, my hope is that, in the future, someone will create a marker that works well on both surfaces. I’ve tried only using white board markers for both – true error-proofing – but they still don’t work as well on flip charts as flip chart markers do.

    Fun topic!

    • Yeah, I think the fact that whiteboard markers are designed to dry quickly means they just don’t write smoothly on the relatively high-friction surface of paper. You *can* use one marker for both, but they are slightly different technologies for two different media (porous paper vs. non-porous glass or whiteboard).

  6. So my interest was peaked, and after a little Google searching I found the following:

    “Onboard dry erase board marker has gone green. Made up of a minimum of 37% recycled materials, the Onboard is truly Eco-Friendly:Refillable, Recyclable and Xylene / Toluene free. Whether at school, office, workplace or home, you may write, erase and rewrite effortlessly with OnBoard dry erase markers. Five brilliant ink colours enhance effectiveness of your presentations on whiteboards, notice boards, flip charts or elsewhere. Now you can be sure of communicating your expressions, as ever-lasting impres – See more at: http://www.globial.com/Dollar-Industries-Pvt-Ltd/Products/On-board-Dry-Erase-Marker/?p=102490#sthash.BISDvlca.dpuf”


  7. I think the appropriate response is to quit buying the flipchart markers altogether. Whiteboard markers work just fine on flipcharts.

    Reduces your inventory costs and prevents errors.

  8. Have you used Smart Sheets? Dry erase static cling to wall. They’re the bomb! Just throw them on the wall and dry erase away. When you’re done throw them away. Great for facilitating dynamic content like VSMs. You can also move them to another wall or take them to another room.

  9. I will admit to having written on some really nice walls. LöL. Collateral damage in the quest for improvement.
    Also, have you noticed that the Low Odor markers don’t erase as well?

  10. Identifying the different markers in a tactile way is a good idea, however, surely it is the whiteboard markers that should be tagged (with elastic bands etc) — so the sytem is ‘fail safe’ and a new marker introduced the the environment is assumed to be dangerous unless it has been specifically tagged.

  11. How about double sided markers. One side for each and with a different cap to make each side easily differentiated. The white board cap wont fit on the other end (by design) to stop accidental cap switching. Make the person using it check each time, even if its by feel (triangle Vs round ends) and they may get that “this isnt quite right” feeling before writting on a whiteboard after pulling off say a triangle cap.

  12. Get yourselves a bottle of rubbing alcohol. It will remove almost any ink mishap quickly. Just dampen part of a paper towel and wipe it down. It’s good to follow up with whiteboard cleaner to condition the board.

    Of course, for water-based inks you’d start with a towel dampened with water.

    • Depending on the whiteboard material, the rubbing alcohol may delaminate or shorten the life of the whiteboard. The only material this doesn’t apply to is glass. Realistically, every business should do the cost/benefit analysis of glass whiteboards, as they aren’t a significantly larger expense, and they practically never wear out. Then, the type of marker you use doesn’t matter. It would seem that this is the most reasonable option for those who are currently looking to replace or purchase new whiteboards. Over 50 years (assuming the business lives that long) I think that the cost-savings and increased functionality will be of the best value. From a LEAN perspective, talking about markers or marker systems is only beneficial if you aren’t expecting the business to live very long.

      • I didn’t know that about glass whiteboards. Thanks.

        My post wasn’t meant to imply that boards and markers are the most pressing issues for most organizations. I was just trying to illustrate principles and mindsets around mistake proofing, improving systems, and not blaming people.

        • Glass whiteboards are fabulous. I’ve used them at a customer’s office before. The only downside was that there was no shelf at the bottom of the glass whiteboard to hold the markers. The result? We kept losing markers!

  13. Fun topic! I had this issue before, after investigation and experimentation discovered dry erase markers of course work on the dry erase boards BUT also work just as well on easel paper as a chart marker so we ONLY buy dry erase markers now and use for both applications! Solution = Mistake Proof level 3 (prevention of error)

    • I had to use whiteboard markers on an easel pad last week… I disagree that they work great on paper. Maybe when they are new, but if they dry out a bit, I found that they weren’t dark enough. I think they are designed for white boards in a pretty specific way. They “work” but I wouldn’t say they work well. It’s error proofed, but I think the quality of writing suffers…

  14. Well, identifying the different markers in a tactile way is a good idea, however, surely it is the whiteboard markers that should be tagged so the system is ‘fail-safe’ and a new marker introduced the environment is assumed to be dangerous unless it has been specifically tagged.


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