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A Short Story for Engineers (txstate.edu)
278 points by shawndumas on Dec 30, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 85 comments

I like the values that jokes like this reinforce (simplicity, creativity, and proactivity versus complexity, expense, and bureaucracy) but I wonder if they serve a positive purpose in engineering culture. Do we tell these jokes to keep ourselves on our toes, to make ourselves better? Are we really in danger of forgetting which is better, simplicity or complexity? When we create complex and over-engineered systems, is it because we forget that simplicity is better?

I don't think we do. I think we tell ourselves these jokes to contrast good engineering with bad engineering and to congratulate ourselves for being on the right side. A good joke would lead you down the garden path, encourage a bit of smugness and then rip the rug out from under you. This joke telegraphs the punch line from the start: it encourages smugness and then vindicates it. A healthy joke would make us uncomfortable about whether we would have been on the right side, whether we are doing a good job of living up to our values. This joke reassures us that the problem is other people's values, and by doing so, it promotes exactly the kind of complacency that it makes fun of.

You've clearly never worked in a factory as a low level person who is usually asked last, if at all, how to solve a problem concerning their job. I've forwarded this to my father, who will love it as a person who rose from the shop floor to the highest levels of management and never lost his distrust of "college boys."

I think one of the first things the college boys are taught now - or should be - is that one of the first things they should do is talk to the low-level folks on the floor. Even if they don't have the solution, they often have information/experience that can inform the solution or even better, what the real problem is. And this applies not only to factory floors, but to any "system" made up of people and processes (equipment optional).

As an engineering major, I did a few co-op assignments in a factory. I was assigned the task of figuring out how to optimize a particular line in the factory - we had new equipment coming in and were considering retrofitting some of the other equipment. The folks working on the floor told me how much they appreciated that I spoke with them and got their input rather than simply coming down with my "stopwatch and measuring tape."

Now I'm on the other side of the line <sigh>. And I'm sick of management and/or experts trying figure out how to improve morale and processes without consulting those of us in the trenches.

My MBA had an entire course on the Toyota philosophy.

One of the biggest points put forward was (paraphrased).

> At Toyota we don't automate. Well we do automate, but we wait as long as possible to automate. Why would we build a machine to do a process that we don't understand? The machine won't improve the process, it will keep doing whatever broken thing you tell it.

Basically treat all of your employees as the assets they are, and get them to help improve the process.

I sure hope you're right. It wasn't drilled into me when I was in engineering school (mid-2000s), but I will heartily confirm that operators are a fantastic resource. Interviewing operators is definitely not optional if you want to succeed. Engineers who just leap in often look foolish and face a lot of resistance getting upgrades implemented (well, ideally at least).

That said, operators tend to be masters of their section, but do not often have a comprehensive high-level view (excepting relief operators, who need to have a good idea of the whole process to cover multiple positions). As a result, I treat their input as a deposition or raw data/evidence: pure, unfiltered signal. Some interpretation is likely needed to make it fit into the overall whole of the process, but it's miles away better than guessing or just trusting assumptions!

Process engineering is a comprehensive and collaborative field. Leave operators out, and you're just not looking at the process. People matter. A lot.

This story is probably part of the "blue collar innovation" legends. For more: http://www.snopes.com/business/genius/innovate.asp

"The legend about a low-level employee who pipes up with a shockingly brilliant yet simple suggestion that either makes or saves his employer untold millions of dollars has long been part of the canon of business legends."

No doubt. But these sorts of things also do happen.

I used a 20 dollar pen cam off eBay for diagnostics once, avoiding tens of thousands in diagnostic downtime needed otherwise and found a root cause of an otherwise undetected massive failure mode. All because the blasted thing fit. (Full disclosure: the idea started with a plant tech who wondered if there was an application for the pens - research and testing later showed it safe under our operating conditions (a small explosion was possible).)

It's a rare opportunity, but magical when it happens (and modern, cheap tech is magical for heavy industry).

Oh sorry, I didn't realise the connotations of "legend". I just wanted to refer to other similar/related stories. Interesting story.

I really wish I didn't default to reading the word "legend" as implausible. I don't use it in spoken conversation that way, at least.

I like another poster's point that even if it's not real, it's still useful as a parable, so your link to more is appreciated!

"tales" might be what you were looking for. They could be either true, embellished, or not true but a great tale.

I don't think your father will like the joke, either. According to the story, the line workers had the ability to fix the problem all along, but they didn't bother until the $8 million system made it personally inconvenient for them when an empty box reached the scales. It makes them sound clever but also rather lazy and selfish.

>the line workers had the ability to fix the problem all along

Yes they had the ability, but did the line workers know that empty boxes being shipped was a problem?

There is no solution without a problem.

They most likely didn't. My father used to be sent around as a trouble shooter and would tell stories of managers never setting foot on the factory floor to talk to the workers.

Are the workers so stupid that they think shipping empty boxes is normal?

Common sense is not always wrong.

Yes, we all know that the line workers are usually:

* given high(er)-level information on how the company is doing

* asked for their opinions

* highly motivated by management to solve problems like that

I highly recommend reading The Gervais Principle.

>>the line workers had the ability to fix the problem

But not the authority.

This reminds me of an article about lazy people innovate. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4178031

unfortunately line workers are never asked "what would you do?"

And even if asked "how would you fix the problem"

Answering with "Put a fan right there to blow all the empty boxes off the line" would be seen as taking the piss and laughed off with comments like "You're missing the big picture"

A few things:

The box-filling machine was not working properly. This could be due to wear, poor quality boxes, a problem upstream with where the tubes came from.

Although a solution was found to the problem of shipping empty boxes, the process in the factory was not resolved in that the source of the problem was not identified.

The new scales made it possible to find the empty boxes and pause the conveyor belt so that the offending light box could be removed.

However, the operator went ahead and did his own thing with the fan, not asking for authorisation from the site electrician, his line manager, senior management or anyone else. Because of what he did it no longer became possible to have the line stop as soon as a problem was detected. Or to have the scales machine do the accounting for this. This information may be important for the engineering department to know they have to clean/fix/replace parts on the box filling machine.

If it was my factory I might not have sacked the operator for being a 'loose cannon' however I would not have rewarded him for his ingenuity. To be fair he did not know of the empty box problem until the scales came along, he was not 'wilfully ignorant' of the problem because he did not know about it. However, his fix did not solve the core problem and it only made it harder for the engineering team to remedy the situation. (The engineering team were not wilfully ignorant either).

So this is a silly story that might be a funny anecdote at an after dinner talk but it has no relevance to a real factory and the processes involved. If anything it tells a different story of how out of touch we are with manufacturing.

From my experience, the key point in this story is that if you bother people enough with useless manual interventions, they will come up with a way to automate themselves out of the job.

Furthermore, the solution is often simpler and cheaper than the monitoring infrastructure.

And, well, the rest of the anecdote is based on the waste of money caused by the fact that the external company had everything to gain from overengeneering the solution.

The engineering team could adjust the scales to automatically tip an empty box off the line, recording when it was found. Win (data to identify the source of the problem)- win (line guy doesn't have to walk over) - win (no empty boxes shipped)!

You're right: jokes like this only perpetuate bad attitudes- "oh, let's laugh at management/engineering, they think they're so clever."

From my time working in improvement in factories, I'm very confident that the single largest factor that determined whether they would achieve any improvements was the attitude of the team in place. "We've tried it before and it didn't work" is the enemy. Rarely is the enemy "let's spend $8mm on un-necessary consulting help." That's really, really rare. Most people hate spending money on outside help, they see it as a failure (which is also a harmful attitude).

"Most people hate spending money on outside help"

Managers at large companies love hiring consultants. They look like they're being professional, they don't have to figure it out themselves, and they can shift responsibility onto the consultant. The last works if you hire a reputable consultant (ie. expensive) that no one would object to your having hired. So in fact, hiring a specifically expensive consultant would be desireable.

To try balancing the discussion a bit:

On the upside, due to the $8M contract, lots of people were able to work and earn a living. The story also mentions how the team had a great time, and probably lots of useful connections between people were made, and tacit knowledge exchanged. Neither of those is traditionally accounted for by the engineering mindset.

On the upside, due to the $8M contract, lots of people were able to work and earn a living. The story also mentions how the team had a great time, and probably lots of useful connections between people were made, and tacit knowledge exchanged.

This sort of reasoning could also justify the TSA.

Your fallacy is: "Glazier's fallacy". See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parable_of_the_broken_window

A little bit of self-doubt is expected from civilised people.

You're wrong in calling my thinking fallacious, because my point was merely to emphasise how reductionistic approaches never give a complete picture, which is why people from a STEM background often benefit from further training in psychology and social sciences. However, Theodores' reply ('A few things:...') does a better job than mine.

Nevertheless, Glazier's fallacy is tangential, so thank you for posting.

> On the upside, due to the $8M contract, lots of people were able to work and earn a living.

Yes but you have to also consider the opportunity cost of that $8M. Were the incidental benefits gained worth the cost?

nooo !! that's why research into the hover-skateboard stopped !!

Its like dancing, the more effortless it looks, the harder it is to do. Sometimes takes a lot of math to design the ideal simplest possible part rather than just hacking some kind of brute force beast together.

"Simplicate and add lightness" is a cool aerospace engineering slogan that's been attributed to almost everyone in the biz who is cool, although it actually comes from a Ford engineer named Stout (like the beer), at least as I recall it. I like this slogan, and its the same general topic we're discussing, but I think the joke is more effective because its funny.

> Its like dancing, the more effortless it looks, the harder it is to do.

This is actually not true. It is fairly effortless for the dancers doing it - what was hard was all the training and hard work getting to the point of it being effortless.

> is it because we forget that simplicity is better?

Oh yes, all the time. I am busy trying to automate everything in the office, because it is what I know. Whenever someone comes to me with a problem, I think about how it will integrated into our systems, adding tables to the database, adding a page so people can track how it is done. When someone else has already solved it using a simple trick.

I definitely feel we have not read the same text. It is clear to me that a problem that can be addressed by a 8M$ or by a 20$ solution, the 8M$ can be ruled as 'over-engineered' and very inefficient in this particular context. I don't see how this inefficiency is promoted by such a story?

But the eight million dollar project is more efficient than waiting for a random twenty dollar fix. And as it seemed to be meeting the goals set for it, it was also likely more efficient than allowing bad product out the door, which is what this is really gauged against.

Honestly, I was expecting the punch line to be that they found it cost more in the end because it shut the blasted line down for each bad box. I'm an engineer in a plant, and frankly that just seems insane, even if localized (accumulators are never big enough!)

I think it might have been more efficient to hold a company meeting that said, "Hey guys, we are having a problem with empty boxes getting shipped. If you have an idea of how to make sure empty boxes get removed from the line, let us know!" Note that the simplest and most cost effective solution will be used, and offer a thousand dollar bonus to whoever suggests it. (The bonus might motivate people who otherwise might not care.)

That is orders of magnitude more efficient than commissioning an $8M consultation, and is likely to find any low-hanging fruit such as fans-on-conveyor belts. If no one has any ideas in the first month, it's possible that such insights are not commonplace, and then you can go commission your million dollar consultation.

I'm going to pretend that you didn't suggest holding a plant-wide meeting as a form of efficiency ;)

But the idea of setting up bounties is controversial. The arguments for and against it quickly get remarkably tortuous. I've never seen it implemented, but I can definitely say the idea is attractive. I had a coworker who would offer a hundred bucks (of his own money) to the operators who maintained stable production on a weekend run; it looks like it works, but he couldn't afford that too much.

It's often easier to spend giant sums of cash than to be clever, as cleverness is unreliable, but giant stacks of cash are accountable. (TL;DR: industry is often penny wise, pound foolish.)

I wouldn't call a solution gathered without consulting everyone's feedback 'efficient'. Obviously the 'fan solution' might have come up earlier (or at least some derivative)

I think it's some of each ... and serves the same purpose that reading Dilbert cartoons do. When you read one that sounds a bit like you, do you pause and wonder whether something needs to change?

My opinion has shifted over the last few years working in plants, and I've now settled on the idea that the fan solution probably needed the eight million dollar project. Without the project, the operator would not have been inconvenienced, nor would they have achieved their goals as soon.

Also remember that the project was worth it - it was returning on the investment. Ideally the simple solution would have been found first for a massive windfall of savings, but industry runs on constant, small, incremental changes over many years. And it takes a very special mindset to invent awesome hacks like the fan trick!

The operator should instead be applauded for making it so no other plant needs to buy such an expensive system!

Edit: also, never underestimate the utility of inconveniencing operators. They will find the most brilliant, clever, and cheap hacks to solve problems. Watching operators is the best diagnostic tool available. When you see a c-clamp or duct tape on the machine, you know exactly what needs workin' on next!

One thing that people forget is that the $8 million system works as constant quality assurance. The $20 fan is all good but what if the weight of the boxes increases due to extra packaging? What about if the fan slowly dies over time?

The back up system will always make sure that only the correct boxes pass. I think people should realize that.

The point is not that the $8 million system did not work. The point is that it was overly expensive for what it accomplished, and it slowed down the production line significantly enough that some worker went out of his way to implement his own solution. Without his solution, product quality may still have gone up, but production numbers would have gone down since the production line would stop every time there was an empty box on the belt. In contrast, the fan not only increased product quality, but it also had no impact on number of units produced and it cost $20 to boot. Sure, it's not a perfect solution, but in this case it's "perfect enough." (And making it more perfect would still have been several orders of magnitude cheaper than the $8 million system.)

"The operator should instead be applauded for making it so no other plant needs to buy such an expensive system!"

File a business method patent and charge $7.999M. Or worse get busted by someone else's fan patent and have to pay a $10M fine. (Categorize this as sarcastic commentary, not my personal business plan or endorsement)

"When you see a c-clamp or duct tape on the machine, you know exactly what needs workin' on next!"

Insert bad joke about OSHA fines because they found a way to defeat the safety interlocks again. Just watching punch operators used to make me scared.

To be fair, punch machines are _terrifying_, and the stories about why anti-tie-down circuits exist just make me cringe thinking about it. Again, operators are immensely clever, and, well, many consider safeties an inconvenience. And then they bring their cleverness to bear on it and someone loses a $BODY_PART$.

As for your patent, I'll raise you a "but the patent doesn't cover a _five_ blade fan pointed at a _fifteen_ degree declination at the conveyor", with this leading to a new patent. Technically, that's what patents are all about, but it sure seems silly written out like that. But you're right, that's what happens.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them WHAT to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. -- Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.

Of course, the fan could have been implemented at the git-go if they had bothered consulting the operator in the first place.

In my experience, most operators wouldn't have mentioned it. The first thing I'll do is interview them about any problem I'm investigating, and while they are masters of hindsight, they'll not always be masters of foresight. My coworkers and I have spent a lot of time talking about this sort of thing, and we're often flabbergasted that they don't point out these obvious things sooner. As in, your typical person just gets used to broken things, or they just never think about it. Literally, they'll never think "there's got to be a better way". But the operators who do have that foresight, they are just living gold (though not quite as rare).

Mind, I've had my share of "why not get a 100 foot tape measure" instead of attempting to use laser measurements, but they're in the minority. I emphasize them in practice because people need to feel like they're smart enough to see the simple solutions (because they _are_), but often I have to work to merge their solutions into something workable.

TL;DR: operators should be consulted first, last, and during the development. But engineering is still hard to keep simple.

This is a cute story about over-engineering and thinking outside the box to find the simplest solution, but anyone with manufacturing experience can tell you that many factories have compressed air lines at each machine, and frequently use it to blow bad parts off off of a conveyor/feed rail.

American manufacturing factories are actually homes to tremendous ingenuity and practicality. To an outsider they may seem loud, dirty, and disorganized, but the engineers inside routinely deal with issues like "how can we catch bad parts before they roll off the line, using spare parts, scrap metal, and a $20 budget?" I have seen some amazing Rube Goldberg feeding systems that can outperform expensive laser/optical/diverter gate packages.

A good analogy for the HN community to "To an outsider they may seem loud, dirty, and disorganized" is a LAN party. Are those still a "thing" or am I getting old?

They're still a thing, but I don't see the relevance. Many LAN parties are that loud, dirty and disorganized; I've seen enough PCs destroyed by coke spills or similar to believe that the LAN party atmosphere really is as bad as it seems.

Great story, and widely applicable.

I worked on a very large process and technology improvement program for a Fortune 50 company. One critical piece of the project was a scheduling system for field technicians. After 100+ effort years (don't ask!) we got it developed and tested, and it achieved the 15 minutes per technician productivity improvement, justifying the massive expense. We then found that we could double the benefit by having them reboot their laptops weekly instead of nightly. (Though the technology architects screamed bloody murder)

I feel this - I'm stuck with the worlds worst scheduling system. Explaining to senior management (who have never worked in the field) is to give the tech a workload for N days, and let them schedule their own schedule is more efficient is useless. I probably waste more time with the 2 rather fussy VPN's I have to deal with than any other computing related task.

The engineers should be working alongside the factory line. That this often doesn't happen isn't always the fault of the engineers or management.

Back when I worked on the stab trim gearbox at Boeing, it came time to put it on the test rig and load it up. The test engineers gleefully told me they were going to bust my design. So joy for me, I got to go to the shop and get my hands dirty testing it!

By the time I got there, they had my baby all mounted in the custom test rig, with a giant hydraulic ram all set to torture it. There was some adjustment needed, and I lept forward to make it. The union shop steward physically blocked me, and said I was not allowed to touch anything. I was only allowed to give directions to the union machinist there, and he would turn a wrench at my direction.

Jeez, what a killjoy moment for me.

Anyhow, to make a long story short, when they loaded up the gearbox with the ram, the test rig bent and broke, and that lovely gearbox just sat there. Nyah, nyah, nyah to the test engineers and back to the office building for me.

> and six months (and $8 million) later a fantastic solution was delivered

In real life the solution applied wouldn't be this one, nor the cheap fan, but some dude being paid peanuts to shake each box by hand.

More likely you'd use the expensive scales to measure over/under fills (or tampering?) not just missing tubes.

If toothpaste was your primary cost (LOL, I'm sure its advertising, just like cars and videogames and movies) then if you sell 4 oz +/- 10% and the new scale lets you run continuously at exactly 3.61 oz rather than "around four or so" then you make almost 10% profit by selling exactly 3.61 oz as "about four plus or minus ten percent packages".

You can change it from a cheesy engineering / management joke into a CS discussion, so you're trying to copy one array into another, but sometimes you have an empty value and you want the output to be contiguous. Solutions?

Or a RTOS type question where you're wanting to squirt out exactly one value 44100 times per second... Solutions?

> so you're trying to copy one array into another, but sometimes you have an empty value and you want the output to be contiguous.

This made me giggle. Thank you Sir.

> Or a RTOS type question where you're wanting to squirt out exactly one value 44100 times per second... Solutions?

Use a CD player? :)

A cheesy, apocryphal story written like a forward from Grandma on a site that looks like it was stolen from 1996? How did it make the front page?

This is like an engineering urban legend. I've seen it on here before but the circumstances were different. Last time this was posted it was a Japanese soap factory instead of a toothpaste factory.

Similar to the "Knowing where to put the X" story: http://www.engineering.com/DesignSoftware/DesignSoftwareArti...

Also, the NASA vs Russian space pen vs pencil.

The space pen versus pencil is a myth perpetuated by people on the Internet who don't know what they're talking about.



I thought of the space pen/pencil anecdote as well, but that story isn't accurate, so I like this one better (even if it didn't actually happen).

The pen/pencil thing has the weakness that pencils release small particles and are thus kind of sketchy in low-gravity environments.

Yeah. You could just use a grease pencil or thin crayon though.

Nice sketch pun.

old story, it used to be a USA solution(high-tech, expensive) vs a Chinese factory solution(the fan added by a worker)

No wonder so many jobs are being outsourced!

This is one of the reasons the engineers at Tesla work on the factory floor. Take the tour if you can, it is great.

For me the lesson here isn't as much about engineering as incentives and inclusion. If you engage people who are actually on the front lines in solving the problems, great ideas will emerge. These are the people who understand the problems best, and can be most motivated to fix them.

But in order to do that you have to effectively align incentives for them to solve the problems. If companies treat employees as disposable automatons, and do not allow them to share in the success of the business or benefit from improving workflows, they have no motivation for doing so.

So many companies shoot themselves in the foot by bringing in "experts" when the real experts are right there on their payrolls, but no one is asking them their opinions or creating a situation where they would be inclined to give them anyway.

It's a nice story, but anyone familiar with mechanical feeding systems[1] could tell you air jets have been commonly used to reject parts for decades.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowl_feeder

There are a couple of points that come to mind. First, management needs to be judicious about how problems get solved. Does it require committee? Or a lone actor? Which department should own it or should the CEO take it on personally? Second, there is no doubt that an organizational approach to problem solving is going to change as a company scales. The path the information took in this parable likely was from customer service to upper management to engineering. A CEO that will accept an $8M solution to such a problem is probably running a multi-billion dollar company. If this had been a $50 million company, no way he would have felt satisfied that it was money well spent.

The story doesn't suggest that that the CEO or management staff should have thought of a fan before. It suggests that they should have probably looked into the problem better which may have involved visiting the production line and asking the workers how they would fix the issue inexpensively. Then probably one of them would have come up with this solution, or may be an even better one.

I see people bringing up points like "What if the fan dies?" or "what if the weight of the boxes increases due to extra packaging?". IMHO, these arguments are invalid because of the same reason. Fan is not the solution.

It's possible the line workers would have never thought of this solution without having the inconvenience there to motivate them to. You could try to introduce a bonus to the worker who comes up with the most cost-effective and reliable idea though. It is probably very unlikely management staff would do that, since the engineering team has been "stretched thin" already and they didn't want to consult them.

I have read this story before and it reminds of the phrase "Necessity is the mother of all inventions". What if that $8M project was never implemented ? The factory worker would then not need to manually go and remove the empty boxes. So one way to look at it is that the $8M project actually created a necessity to be more efficient and gave the guy an idea to not manually move the boxes by installing a fan which in turn solved the overall problem of empty boxes being shipped. May be he would have thought of all this without the $8M project but what are the odds ?

Everybody standing on the sidelines with no skin in the game is always proud to point out the engineer's mistakes after they have been made.

I comfort myself with Teddy Roosevelt's "man in the arena" speech.

You'd expect the fancy scales to reject the empty boxes, but instead it appears they just sounded a bell. The workers added the rejection feature once they had an incentive to do so (the ringing bell).

Right. If a solution like this were implemented in the real world, it would almost certainly have a "kicker" mechanism to reject the empty boxes without stopping the whole process.

I think most engineers are familiar with easy quick hack solutions that are cheap and fast. You want this to have an effect? Tell it to the product monkey overlords or the design "gurus"

In 1985 I worked in a factory on a line producing tubes of vitamin A&D ointment (similar packaging to toothpaste tubes.) The filling of the boxes with the tubes was actually done manually, I suppose because ointment is higher margin, lower volume.

We also produced foil packs (like fast food ketchup packets). That machine was the coolest mechanical device I've ever worked with.

Alternate take away: Visibility of key metrics/information (bell on expensive machine) is a strong motivator. Worthwhile when considering spending resources on things like creating informative dashboards and proper instrumentation to focus the a team on key metrics.

how it is usually done in the fulfillment industry is a scale that changes the track if it is off weight by more than a certain percent (think of how train tracks work). The problem here is tougher than just a toothpaste factory because you can have multiple items in one purchase order and you have to make sure all items are in the box. Stopping the entire line every time something is off with 1 package is never a good solution. With pushing the packages into a 'problem' pile, someone can figure out what is wrong with each one and get things moving again on their own schedule.

I think there's a similar story about Fedex being the highest throughput network provider.

oooh !! 8 Mill !! I'd like that ..

Haha! Nice one! Thanks for sharing! Happy New Year to all!

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