Going Down — When a Solution to One Problem Seems to Cause Another

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My wife and I have been home in an Orlando condo building for the past month. In efforts to avoid the coronavirus (and to practice physical distancing to help flatten the curve), we've minimized trips out of the condo.

There are times, though, when I have to go downstairs to either:

If we were in a house, it would be easier to avoid contact with others. One risk in a shared building is the need to interact with elevator buttons, since the virus can live on hard surfaces. I don't want to transfer it to my fingers.

Washing my hands is something I do all the time now. If I go downstairs, the first thing I do when I come back in is to wash my hands properly in the kitchen sink (with soap and hot water for 20 seconds) before I touch anything. I don't wear a mask to go downstairs, because I won't have prolonged contact with anybody and I make sure I don't touch my face.

Even with the ability to wash my hands, I do avoid touching the buttons with my fingers.

I've used:

  • A knuckle
  • My elbow
  • The plastic keyfob

I try using my elbow, because I know I can't scratch or touch my face with it. If I'm going out for a walk, I do use the hand sanitizer that's in the building lobby before heading out (and, again, I use soap and water when I get home).

The building has been very diligent about cleaning common areas and surfaces more frequently. They're wearing masks and practicing physical distancing.

But, this leads us to a situation that comes up often while problem solving — the solution to one problem causes another problem.

Problem: Elevator buttons can possibly collect and transmit the coronavirus from one person to another

“Solution”: Use a heavy disinfectant solution on the elevator buttons frequently

I put “solution” in quotes because it might not really solve the problem, especially if the solution isn't applied to ALL of the buttons (let's say if somebody was in a rush).

In the Lean approach, we tend to use the word “countermeasure” more often. It's an action we take to try to solve a problem, to reduce it's impact, or to mitigate its effects.

Over the past few days, there have been many instances of broken elevator buttons. Apparently, the buttons get pushed into the panel and disappear. I don't recall this happening once over the past three years, but now it's happened many times on at least two of the three elevators, as you can see here (P1, 10, and 12):

A few people wondered if it was a form of sabotage or anger release on somebody's part (these are stressful times).

Another theory, which might be more plausible, is that the new cleaning solution degrades the rubber ring around the buttons, hence causing a new problem.

Right now, this is just a theory about the cause. How can we try to test or confirm cause-and-effect? We could STOP using that cleaning solution. But, it's possible that more buttons might break, if the rubber has already been broken down by previous cleaning.

What should be done next? We need a different countermeasure (different cleaning or no cleaning) or an additional countermeasure to the existing cleaning, perhaps.

It's possible that the cleaning solution has been applied too heavily. Maybe it could be applied to the buttons without spilling over to the runs.

This is something that could be experimented with. The elevator company could also be consulted for their expert knowledge (and maybe they don't know since this is so new).

Update: The elevator company doesn't think it's the cleaner. “It may be a combination of the age of the plastic and people pressing them too hard using their elbows or other items when they avoid touching them.” 

Somebody else suggested that we try putting a clear plastic film or protective sheet over the elevator buttons for now… and then disinfectant that film. But, if the cleaner is not the problem, then maybe we don't need to adjust.

We could also tell residents to assume the buttons are dirty — so handwashing or hand sanitizer is required (and is a good idea anyway).

There are other creative countermeasures that I've seen online, including using toothpicks, paper towels, or other disposable items to push buttons (my wife is fond of using a paper town and then throwing it out… and then washing her hands).

Those were some opportunities to learn from those who faced Covid-19 before us.

As Steve Spear teaches, we need to See a problem, Solve a problem, and Share what we've tried. We can learn from others and we can experiment. Just as we can avoid touching the buttons and wash our hands.

This scenario also shows how root cause analysis can be difficult. You don't determine a root cause by just talking or speculating. You can “go to the gemba” to investigate, you can talk to experts… but ultimately, you have to decide what countermeasures to experiment with.

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

1 Comment
  1. Donna says

    I like the paper towel idea and I’ve started carrying a pack of tissues in my purse to use when I go to stores and have to push buttons on the credit card machines. For me its a logical extension of using a fresh paper towel (also known by some as the “escape towel”) to touch door handles and faucets in public restrooms.

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