You don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate this story.
A toothpaste factory had a problem – due to the way the production line was designed, systematic faults were not unusual, resulting in the occasional empty box being shipped without a toothpaste tube inside. Those who design production lines understand too well the challenges involved with ensuring the precision necessary to guarantee that every single unit is perfect, 100% of the time. Small variations in the environment, which cannot be controlled in a cost-effective way, mean that quality assurance checks must be cleverly distributed across the production line so that the end-customers all the way down to the supermarket don’t become frustrated with faulty products and purchase another brand instead.
Understanding the importance of the situation, the CEO of the toothpaste factory convened a think-tank to explore ways in which to solve the issue. Despite their best efforts, they couldn’t come up with a solution, so they decided to hire an external consultancy to solve their ‘empty boxes’ problem.
The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP (request for proposal), tender selected, and six months (and $8 million) later a fantastic solution was delivered — on time, on budget, high quality and everyone in the project had a great time. The issue was solved by using high-tech precision scale that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box would weigh less than it should. The production line would stop, and someone would walk over and yank the defective box off the line, then press another button to re-start the line.
A short time later, the CEO decided to have a look at the ROI (return on investment) of the project: amazing results! There were no empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were installed, there were very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That was some money well spent!” he said, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.
The number of defects detected by the scales was 0, three weeks after the high-tech system was installed. How could that be? It should have been picking up at least a dozen a day, so maybe there was something wrong with the report. After further investigation, the engineers indicated the statistics were indeed correct. The scales were NOT picking up any defects, because all boxes that got to that point in the conveyor belt were all good.
Perplexed, the CEO travelled down to the factory and walked up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed. A few metres before the scale, a $20 desk fan was blowing any empty boxes off the belt and into a bin. Puzzled, the CEO turned to one of the workers who stated, “Oh yeah…that, one of the guys put it there ’cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang!”
$8 million versus $20, hmmm…money well spent???
Our challenge when solving problems is not necessarily the identification of the solution. It is rather the recognition of our own thinking, i.e., the frames, templates and biases that confine our thinking to narrow routes that prevent us from discovering new and novel pathways. Perhaps one the best ways to safeguard our decision making from our own limitations is to consciously seek the opinions and advice of others who have different perspectives. This might be your operations people, those from a different functional area or project to you, or someone who might have nothing to do with the activity that you are involved in. There will quite naturally be disagreements and conflicts, but if you are prepared to challenge your own thinking and open your mind to different ideas, it might just save you $8 million.