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Point and call your way to IT Project success? Aka do what works for you


An IT Project Management friend returned from a holiday in Japan with an unusual souvenir that he is applying to his work.

Pretty much whenever Malc does anything he says out loud what it is that he is doing. It’s called “pointing and calling” apparently. It is quite intriguing to watch.

“I’m communicating a scope change on Slack,” he might say as he points at the screen or, “I’m updating the stakeholder communications matrix.” At first, you think that he’s gone mad, talking to himself, but he swears that it has cut errors and increased his awareness about the status of his projects.


The idea comes from riding the Japanese railways. 

If you’ve ever caught a train in Tokyo, or seen one on the TV, chances are you’ll have seen a white gloved railway employee, smartly dressed in their perfectly ironed uniform, pointing down the platform and calling out, apparently to themselves! It’s the same with the drivers and train managers, each push of a button, each turn of a dial, each check of a screen is accompanied by a vocal commentary.

Japan’s rail system is rightly considered among the very best in the world. I mean, you think of the origins of high-speed rail travel and you think of the bullet train and rail enthusiasts will tell you that it is amongst the safest on the planet. Which is amazing considering the extensive network of high-speed tracks, the something like 12 billion passengers a year, and the fact that ‘on-time’ isn’t measured in minutes, like on British Railways, but in seconds. With metrics that demand high performance come huge pressure and a risk of getting things wrong – but in Japan, fewer things seem to go wrong.


Like in an IT Project, processes are only as good as the people running them, and ultimately, results are achievable through the daily actions of a team. It’s the same on the Japanese railways, the people, train managers, drivers and station staff, play a pivotal role. And it’s what they do that makes the real difference - the safe and efficient operation of the railways in Japan can be attributed to the vocal calls and physical pointing. It looks silly, but it is a system that has reduced workplace errors by up to 85%. Accidents were reduced by 30%.

When you’re running so many trains, so fast, and with such little room for failure, these are not marginal gains! Imagine for a moment your IT Portfolio with 85% fewer errors. Suddenly Malc doesn’t seem quite so mad (still mad, just not quite so mad).


The system is known as shisa kanko in Japanese, and pointing-and-calling works on the idea of  associating the task you are doing with a verbal call (so, a driver might say, “speed check 80”) and a physical movement (calling “green signal” is accompanied by the driver pointing at the green signal). The premise is that when you coordinate your brain, eyes, ears, mouth and hands you prevent errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers” (this according to the Japanese National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health).

In other words, rather than rely just on a worker’s eyes or trust them to repeat habits each time the complete a rote task, every step is bolstered both physically and audibly to ensure that the task is completed accurately.

It’s such a simple idea and highly effective in improving error rates … and yet the system is still largely confined to Japan (and Malc’s IT projects). Actually, New York City’s subway system adopted the idea in the 90s, they use a ‘point-only’ variation where conductors point to a fixed black-and-white “zebra board” to confirm a train is correctly platformed, within two years incidents of incorrectly berthed trains fell by 57%.


In IT Project terms, Malc tells me that calling and pointing has improved many aspects of his performance. Delivering a Waterfall project recently, calling and pointing at the end of the distinct stages (and each step within) eliminated any chance of “missing something”.

“When you execute in a linear way it helps to sign post each milestone so that you can confidently move on to the next,” he told me.

“Being honest,” says Malc, “in the past, sometimes we’d miss something, and you’d have to go back and make a correction, or someone perhaps doesn’t speak up about something at the time because they’re afraid to look foolish if they’re wrong. It happens! And we’re usually pretty good at spotting it later - getting away with it really. Calling and pointing bubbles any issues up earlier for us and it kinda feels like you’ve got your own back. But you do look and feel a bit of a berk doing it, at least at first.”


Having your own back may be becoming increasingly important as budgets become more of an issue. IT Projects are getting more complex, teams are under increasing financial pressure. Deliver more with fewer resources seems to be the mantra. All well and good, but it does sometimes leave you more at risk of error.

Just last week, another IT Project Manager friend, Alli, was saying that her team is a quarter of the size that it was five years ago and that she has noticed an increase in small errors. The folks who may have ‘double-checked’ your work or been a sounding board at the water cooler just aren’t there anymore. How many times have you been casually talking with a colleague about a project while the kettle boils and the conversation has reminded you to check something? 

Perhaps Malc’s pointing and calling is the answer? Or maybe when your inhouse capability is letting you down you should look for Project Management as a Service resources to bolster your inhouse offer. I have a vested interest in suggesting the latter!

I suppose the point of this blog is – if it works for you do it!

I’d love to hear from you about any quirky approaches to IT Project delivery that you’ve come across or any great ideas from other industries and sectors that you’ve ‘borrowed’. I’m not sure I’ve come across anything as strange as ‘pointing and calling’ but then Malc has always been quite eccentric, I’m surprised he didn’t go the whole way and wear a smartly pressed suit, peaked cap and white gloves!

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for more traditional assistance with IT Project Delivery, or a blend of innovation and tradition, I can point you in the direction of our award-winning model which provides a genuine alternative to conventional models for delivering Professional Services in the Technology Sector. 

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