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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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).
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!
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.
* 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.
But not the authority.
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"
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
This sort of reasoning could also justify the TSA.
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.
Yes but you have to also consider the opportunity cost of that $8M. Were the incidental benefits gained worth the cost?
"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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.)
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!
The back up system will always make sure that only the correct boxes pass. I think people should realize that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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?
This made me giggle. Thank you Sir.
Use a CD player? :)
Also, the NASA vs Russian space pen vs pencil.
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.
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.
I comfort myself with Teddy Roosevelt's "man in the arena" speech.
We also produced foil packs (like fast food ketchup packets). That machine was the coolest mechanical device I've ever worked with.