Innovation: Personal decontamination and the principles of lean design

Logistician Roger describes how Toyota contributes more than the iconic Land Cruiser to MSF.


Roger Morton is a logistician whose work for MSF in Iraq inspired him to design and develop a personal decontamination kit for use in settings where staff may be exposed to chemical weapons.

Lean design

In the 1970s, Japanese engineers in Toyota revolutionised the automotive industry forever. This article is about these same engineers and how they influenced the personal decontamination kit I have developed for MSF through the principle of lean design.
Lean is all about reducing waste in processes, so if you have a process, you can apply those same engineering principles to it. Personal decontamination is a process, and here’s how I made it lean.

Process mapping

Before you can improve a process, you need to understand it. To aid my understanding of this I created a process map, this shows all the procedures for decontamination that are suggested by MSF in its protocols. To make sure the kit I was designing was efficient i divided these procedures into three clear steps.

  1. Initial decontamination
  2. Full decontamination
  3. Evacuation to medical assistance

The more efficient the kit is the easier it is to protect people from a chemical attack.


The Japanese term for mistake proofing is poka-yoke and examples can be seen everywhere around us. An easy example is how a power socket only allows you to put it in one way, so that the live and neutral wires are the right way around. Mistake proofing aims to eliminate mistakes so that time isn’t wasted fixing them later on.

My decontamination kit employs poka-yoke by physically splitting up items required in the decontamination process. Some items are on the outside so that they can be used immediately. Other items are on the inside so that the vest has to be taken off before they can be used, making it impossible to use immediately, while also encouraging the user to be in a safe place before the next steps are carried out.

Here is the decontamination vest with different shaped pockets, only allowing certain materials to go in certain places.


Decontamination vest
Decontamination vest


Time is life

Another part of lean design that I implemented was reduction in time being wasted. My kit reduces ‘setup time’ by having materials in convenient places, but also by having multipurpose items, for example, the lining of the jacket is made from activated carbon cloth which can be stood on as a safe area to decontaminate.  These measures make the kit much more efficient.

The right items in the right place

An important lean practice is to have the right tools and equipment in the right place. This is why the personal decontamination kit was made into an item of clothing, which aims to ensure that the kit is with people at all times, so they don’t have to find the items they need to keep them safe in the event of a chemical attack.
If you want to know more about the vest the article below explains how the decontamination procedure is split up, and how physical constraints simplify the process for the user:

 As part of the decontamination kit, there is also a vehicle kit, which includes a headrest made of absorbent cloth, and waste bags, concealed under a chemical proof seat cover. Instinctively in a chemical weapons attack people will run to the vehicles to evacuate, so even if they don’t have a vest, they will always have some basic but very effective decontamination materials available to them, before, during and after evacuation.

 The right information in the right place

Another principle of lean is to provide the right information at the right place. In a lean factory, you will see information on walls relevant to the tasks being carried out at that time. The same principle is employed with my vest. There is information taken from the MSF standard operating procedure for chemical attacks printed inside the vest to aid the user.
There is:

  1.   A daily checklist on how to use the vest 
  2.     Different chemical agents and how they will affect you.

The idea behind this information being inside the vest is that it acts as ongoing training for the user. They have to look at it when they put on the jacket.

 The daily checklist, visible at the beginning of every day



Inside the vest
Inside the vest


Staff engagement

The final use of lean design perhaps the least catchy was the idea of empowering staff to
to share the responsibility of the process. In existing kits, the decontamination bags are often sealed which means users have no way of verifying for themselves whether the kit they have is complete or not. The lean decontamination vest does not have tamper proof seals because staff have the responsibility to maintain and look after their own kits.
So, Toyota didn’t just give MSF the Land Cruiser, they also pioneered the lean design philosophy that has helped create a decontamination vest that will hopefully protect future generations of MSF field workers from the dangers of chemical warfare.