A few days ago, we heard a story about solving engineering problems and the tendency to over engineer a solution. The story was along the lines of:
A toothpaste factory was occasionally shipping boxes without the tube inside.
Understanding how important this was to customer satisfaction, management hired an external engineering company to solve the empty boxes problem. Six months and thousands of dollars later they had a practical solution, on time and on budget.
They solved the problem by using high-tech precision scales that would sound an alarm whenever a toothpaste box weighed less than it should. An arm would push the empty into a reject bin past the scale. Problem solved!
But three weeks later, the Chief Engineer for product quality mentioned that the number of defects picked up by the scales had fallen to zero. Puzzled, management traveled to the factory to inspect the installation. A few feet before the scales, someone had placed a $20 desk fan on a table and pointed it at the conveyor belt. As they watched, an empty box came down the line, and the fan blew it off the belt and into a bin.
"Oh that," replied one of the workers when queried. "One of the guys put it there because he was tired of hearing the alarm."
Albert Einstein had a maxim that "everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler." As engineers solving complex problems, we can forget this very important point and end up with very complex solutions to simple problems. Both Occam's razor, the equivalent of the law of succinctness, and the KISS principle ask that we offer the simplest solution or explanation when we solve problems. The KISS principle, according to the author of the acronym, stands for "Keep It Simple Stupid," with the "Stupid" referring to how things can go wrong when applying unnecessary complexity.
As we solve problems in a high technology field, we want to continue to ask the question, "Can this be accomplished with a more elegant or simple solution?" In the aforementioned story, the engineering company solved the problem with a very high tech solution but missed three crucial steps in their project to arrive at the solution.
Initially, they forgot KISS and Einstein's maxim and pushed forward with a high precision scale solution where a simple fan would have been sufficient. Secondly, and more importantly, they forgot to talk in detail with the operators of the equipment. The operator who installed the fan had infinitely more experience with the process, giving him a much different view of how to solve the empty box problem. Anytime we are automating one piece of a process or retrofitting a complete system, the operators are a key resource for ideas about system improvement, simplification, and optimization. They operate the equipment and processes on a daily basis, giving them a very detailed knowledge of how the system should operate.
Lastly, the engineering company failed to ask the most important question - what is causing empty boxes in the first place? While both solutions keep the boxes from getting to the customer, solving the real problem would do even more for the company by saving the waste generated from every empty box (energy, time, reprocessing, etc.). Don't treat the symptoms, treat the cause.
Our engineering team regularly reviews processes for our customers, looking for optimization potential. Part of this review includes an interview with several operators for their point of view on potential optimizations within the process. We look forward to the opportunity to review your plant processes for cost reductions or production improvements and to interview the experts, your operators.