Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Simplicity solves problem & saves money!

I've never been stupid enough to suggest complexity doesn’t exist.

It’s just that sometimes our mindset and our actions promote what I would call the myth of complexity when solutions are actually very simple and quite often staring us in the face. I am indebted to my great friend Sriram Kannan in Hong Kong for these two absolutely wonderful examples of what I am trying to say.

Thank you Sriram - I love this!!

Case 1

When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that the pens wouldn't work at zero gravity (ink won't flow down to the writing surface). To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million. They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.

And what did the Russians do....?? They used a pencil.

Case 2

One of the most memorable case studies on Japanese management was the case of the empty soapbox, which happened in one of Japan’s biggest cosmetics companies. The company received a complaint that a consumer had bought a soapbox that was empty. Immediately the authorities isolated the problem to the assembly line, which transported all the packaged boxes of soap to the delivery department. For some reason, one soapbox went through the assembly line empty. Management asked its engineers to solve the problem. Post-haste, the engineers worked hard to devise an X-ray machine with high-resolution monitors manned by two people to watch all the soapboxes that passed through the line to make sure they were not empty. No doubt, they worked hard and they worked fast but they spent whoopee amount to do so.

But when a rank-and-file employee in a small company was posed with the same problem, he did not get into complications of X-rays, etc., but instead came out with another solution. He bought a strong industrial electric fan and pointed it at the assembly line. He switched the fan on, and as each soapbox passed the fan, it simply blew the empty boxes out of the line.


1 Always look for simple solutions.

2 Devise the simplest possible solution that solves the problems.

3 Always focus on solutions & not on problems.


spinhead said...

I heartily recommend Matthew Way's "Mind of the Innovator" for helping me work on exactly this kind of thinking.

You can download it free at ChangeThis.com

Trevor Gay said...

Great link Joel - thanks. It's amazing how problems can be solved if we just look at the problems in a different way.

Richard Lipscombe said...

Great joke Trevor - I got a really good laugh out of it! I have always admired the way the Russians tried to deploy 'pencil' tech to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely to earth. It is about equivalent to me building a 'go cart' in my shed and competing against Formula One Cars and Drivers at next year's Australian Grand Prix. I admire much more my friends at NASA (Aaron Cohen, Glynn Lunney, etc) who actually invented or innovated things into the 'state of art' technologies needed to actually send a man to the moon and bring him back safely to earth. Thanks for the joke - its a real hoot!

Trevor Gay said...

Of course I bow to your greater knowledge of NASA Richard - you worked there after all so I would certainly not argue with you.

These are two lovely stories though and within them are important messages I'm sure.

Dave Wheeler said...

Trevor...terrific examples of the value of simple and inexpensive solutions from those in the trenches.

NASA and the space program is an excellent example of how this type of thinking, when "institutionalized" into the day to day way business gets done, can save lives as well as resources. When carbon dioxide poisoning threatened the crew of Apollo 13 on their return to earth, NASA Engineer Ed Smylie and his team figured out a way to adapt the square lithium hydroxide cannisters in the command module into the round cannisters of the lunar module. They put the square peg into the round hole if you will using a sock, plastic bag, cover of a flight manual, and duct tape available on the spacecraft and saved three lives in the process.

Adapt, improvise, overcome...who is in the best position to devise these types of fixes...managers? Don't think so..

Trevor Gay said...

Dave - Thanks for that story of NASA – another great example of improvisation and solving the problem AT the front line BY the front liners!

We have two great examples from Russia and The US space programmes to illustrate perfectly the point of improvisation and adapting to overcome problems.