A Short Story for Engineers

Okay.  I haven’t posted for eleven days, which is the longest gap since I started this blog.

Didja notice?

Nevermind.  Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question.

Anyway.  Long story short, my mom is doing better every day, and we fully expect the doctor to set a discharge date next week.  Her back surgery was a completely anticipated and scheduled event, but the length of recovery . . . not so much.  Still, we have every reason to believe it will provide long-term pain relief, and I’ll be honest here.  Mom could use some relief after the last couple of years.

I had a great time visiting in Florida, regardless of the less-than-ideal circumstances.  Sadly, it takes an event like this to make me slow down and properly appreciate the blessing that is Mommy and Daddy.

We had a lot of laughs, just a few tears, and some really profound self-realization moments, like when Dad was driving, and I squealed and cringed and hid my eyes as he did a sudden U-turn.  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” he asked, chuckling.  Yeah, well, okay, so I reacted like Mom.  Most females would do the same, Mister.

On the airplane, I was able to make substantial progress reading Ted’s book, The Eagle Has Crashed.  A really good story, and I can’t wait to find out what happens.

Oh, yeah.  The title of my post refers to a story my step-dad-in-law emailed.  It’s worth reading to the end, and you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate it:

A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty boxes, without the tube inside. This was due to the way the production line was set up, and people with experience in designing production lines will tell you how difficult it is to have everything happen with timings so precise that every single unit coming out of it is perfect 100% of the time.

Small variations in the environment (which cannot be controlled in a cost-effective fashion) mean you must have quality assurance checks smartly distributed across the line so that customers all the way down to the supermarket don’t get pissed off and buy another product instead.

Understanding how important that was, the CEO of the toothpaste factory got the top people in the company together and they decided to start a new project, in which they would hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem, as their engineering department was already too stretched to take on any extra effort.

The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, third-parties selected, and six months (and $8 million) later they had a fantastic solution – on time, on budget, high quality and everyone in the project had a great time.

They solved the problem by using high-tech precision scales that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box would weigh less than it should. The line would stop, and someone had to walk over and yank the defective box out of it, pressing another button when done to re-start the line.

A while later, the CEO decides to have a look at the ROI of the project: amazing results! No empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were put in place. Very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That’s some money well spent!” – he says, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.

It turns out, the number of defects picked up by the scales was zero after three weeks of production use. It should’ve been picking up at least a dozen a day, so maybe there was something wrong with the report. He filed a bug against it, and after some investigation, the engineers come back saying the report was actually correct. The scales really weren’t picking up any defects, because all boxes that got to that point in the conveyor belt were good.

Puzzled, the CEO travels down to the factory, and walks up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed. A few feet before the scale, there was a $20 desk fan, blowing the empty boxes out of the belt and into a bin.

“Oh, that,” says one of the workers – “one of the guys put it there cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang.”

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12 thoughts on “A Short Story for Engineers

  1. Yos / Si Vis Pacem 19 January 2012 at 10:16 pm Reply

    Heh! Nice. As prospectors will tell you, gold is often where you find it.

  2. SDH 20 January 2012 at 12:20 am Reply

    Didja notice?

    Yep.

  3. SDH 20 January 2012 at 12:21 am Reply

    Nevermind. Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that question.

    Crap. Next time I’ll read the post before I reply.

  4. edge of the sandbox 20 January 2012 at 12:10 pm Reply

    Wish you mother a quick recovery. Cheers!

  5. pjMom 21 January 2012 at 9:57 pm Reply

    Did notice. Tried to comment from my phone a few days ago but it gives me fits.

    Prayers for your mom’s speedy recovery. Glad you got to be there for the surgery. When my mom had 2 different back surgeries in the past few, I wasn’t able to be there. Stinks being so far away from family.

    • nooneofanyimport 22 January 2012 at 6:32 pm Reply

      yes it does, PJ. Yes it does. Thanks for the well wishes, guys.

  6. [...] A Short Story for Engineers [...]

  7. Citizen Tom 22 January 2012 at 11:01 pm Reply

    Great story! Always a good idea to give the people on the floor a chance to innovate. Sometimes some very smart people don’t have degrees and lots of training, but they do have good ideas.

    Google Quality Circles and Six Sigma. There are ways even bureaucratic corporations do try to involve their employees. However, the key is statistical control. When company execs went looking for unexpected results, that meant they understood enough to investigate any kind of anomaly.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edward_Demming

  8. Always On Watch 23 January 2012 at 10:53 am Reply

    Yes, I noticed your absence.


    Sadly, it takes an event like this to make me slow down and properly appreciate the blessing that is Mommy and Daddy.

    At least you got the opportunity! So many adult children end up going only to a distant funeral.

    And other adult children end up with years of grueling caregiving — or, even worse, years of death watches.

    • nooneofanyimport 28 January 2012 at 9:26 pm Reply

      That’s the truth, AOW. I’m blessed both by my parents and the opportunities I’ve had as an adult to spend time with them.

  9. [...] if you don’t believe me, believe my friend L.  I’ve seen this story a couple times, and it doesn’t matter if it’s true, [...]

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