Through the Motions: Japanese Rail Workers Point & Call to Promote Safety

Watching Japanese train conductors (and other railway staff) point all over the place as they perform their duties is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their accompanying verbalizations can also seem strange, apparently directed at no one in particular. But what appear at a glance to be a series of oddly redundant rituals is part of a proven strategy to increase safety across the country’s transportation network.

The system, known as pointing-and-calling (shisa kanko), “works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations,” explains Allan Richarz,  “to prevent errors by raising the consciousness levels of workers.” Each habit becomes associated with multiple senses, upping awareness levels. According to studies, “the technique reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent.”

Pointing and calling illustrated by figures on a railway station sign by Motohiko Sakazaki

As rail workers go about their day and perform rote duties, they point to screens and buttons and speak their actions aloud. Before leaving a station, for instance, they will point and look along the length of the track then give a verbal all-clear. Drivers will point down the tracks and at speed dials as they start up and depart. This set of behaviors naturally stands out to travelers unfamiliar with the approach.

The point-and-call system is not unique to the rail network in Japan though it is particularly visible in that industry, which facilitates 12 billion trips each year with renowned efficiency, accuracy and safety.

It is not entirely clear why the practice is not more widespread beyond Japan. The obvious theory, though, is that workers might feel a bit awkward at performing these redundant activities.

Still, a simplified version adopted by the MTA in NYC has been credited with a significant reduction in mistakes in that transit network as well. New Yorkers have had some fun with the system, too:

  1. Sean

    I find vocalising tasks as I do them lets me debate the process, internal person versus external person. When developing new systems and processes it helps clarify stages and steps to ensure things are not overlooked.

  2. Isaac

    I wonder how many other fields this technique might be applied to and what its effect might be. Specifically education and say… studying. Another thing this brings to mind is the editing technique of reading out loud, it is known to produce higher quality editing and I wonder if this has to do with an increase in awareness.

    Another practice we see in education, and that is encouraged in grade school is children pointing at what they’re reading. This is a very interesting piece and has left me with a lot to think about.

  3. Georgia

    The lifeguards are Raging Waters in San Jose use this technique; I think it started after the unfortunate drowning of a 4 year old. They point to all areas of the pool they’re responsible for periodically, and as they’re changing shifts. Looks weird, until you realize that it probably works.

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