Show Me the Stupid

On an interview a couple of months ago one of the senior persons with whom I interviewed said that he had gotten floor workers at the plant together for a Kaizen event. Focusing on activities that weren’t value added activities, but rather wasteful actions (Muda), he challenged people to “Show me the stupid!” (I told him I would likely borrow that phrase; if he ever reads this and wants credit, I will happily edit this to give it to him.)

So this essay will be a set of a handful of as-scrubbed-as-possible situations that – in the cold light of dispassionate examination – I believe are worthy of being proposed as prime candidates for “Show me the stupid.” Note that in each of these cases, a simple and detached look from an outsider without an institutional stake in the way things were, i.e., not wearing status quo blinders, would likely have called into question the situation before the loss of time and money. So read through, shake your head, do a facepalm, and then – with renewed vigor – challenge your organization to take a serious look at itself and its practices… and find the stupid. Because it’s there… and you know it.

Note: In each case there are potential solutions I might propose; I will refrain. Each reader should read the situation and decide what actions they might take for themselves without my external kibitzing. The idea here is to get people to think, not copy any solutions I might proffer. And I present these not as slams to anyone – which is why I’ve “scrubbed” them of any identifying information – but rather as instructional case studies to get the observational and creative juices flowing.

Duplicate Molds

An injection molding-and-assembly facility supplied a molded-and-assembled subassembly for two separate, but very similar, end products. Each subassembly had two primary molded pieces; one, a housing, was almost identical between the two variations. The only difference between these two housings was a slightly-differently-styled corner that, when installed in the top level product, was mostly-covered by a rubber molding and thus essentially invisible anyway. The other piece was, literally, identical between the two variations; the prints confirmed that. Yet there were two separate molds for the same physical item, with two different part numbers.

So instead of having just two molds, one for each of the parts and a common subassembly between the two end products, the company spent at least $200K for the two added molds, never mind the added SKUs and storage space for parts and molds – and the two different stocking and SKU requirements at the top-level assembly plant. All to create two variations of a product without any discernible differentiation in the end customer’s perception.

Shades of Grey?

At a major company where appearance is an essential part of marketing, two subassemblies were physically identical aside from decorative markings that were added at the last minute. These highly-visible-to-the-customer subassemblies were painted two shade of grey depending on which variation of end product they went into. And these shades of grey were indistinguishable to anyone without an extremely sensitive eye.

Thus, an R&D project – which IIRC lasted almost a year and took the majority of a senior engineering researcher’s schedule – was started to develop a vision system to scan parts before they were assembled, and verify which shade of grey was which in order to prevent putting the wrong shade of grey item into the end product.

Totally Tubular

A company made a wide variety of subassemblies for their products; each subassembly used 2-4 copper tubes in the back for fluid connections. In the assembly department for this subassembly there was a six-foot shelving unit devoted to copper tubes, which was filled from top to bottom with all the varieties of tubes needed. Many tube diameters varied by 1/64th of an inch, and tubes of the same diameter had different lengths; many of the lengths varied by 1/16th of an inch from 1 inch to 6 inches. All in all, there were probably over 40 variations, many of which were so close to each other – on diameter or length or both – that calipers and rulers were needed to re-sort them if they were taken from their labeled bins, placed side-by-side on a table, and accidentally mixed up. (And don’t ignore the custom-designed fittings that went onto the tubes, many of which differed only because of the diameter of the tube itself.)

Marginal Dollars

A company has an engineering help center for raw materials they distributed. Prime – high-grade engineering materials – would have a per-pound profit premium attached to their purchase. Because of that margin per pound, managerial priority was given to orders that generated that extra margin. So two new customers came along needing engineering support for new business, but they were buying generic – not “prime” – materials. These were huge orders, far larger than the normal orders of higher-margin materials… thus, yielding significantly larger profits in terms of absolute dollars for the same amount of engineering work. And since they were new customers, the potential was there to grow sales to these customers further.

But because the Powers-That-Be determined that materials with margins always got priority, smaller – and lower absolute-dollar profit – work was done preferentially and the new customers were pushed back, and back, and back.

Dead? Bury It.

A company with a 20+ year history of steadily-advancing product line diversity, sophistication, and performance continued to support its entire history of products. Replacement part orders were examined, and in a dozen-or-so cases, the volumes of replacement parts needed were less than one per year. One bin of replacement parts, typically made in a lot of 30, had 27 parts when examined… which had been made almost a decade before. With these parts came fixtures, gauges, and special tools that needed to be stored and maintained against the eventuality that in another decade or two, another lot of 30 might be needed.

Paper, Paper, Paper

A person was up for promotion to a senior-level position as a Project Manager. Before that promotion could occur, that person needed to complete a multi-course advanced-degree program focusing on learning Project Manager tools. This person was already certified by the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional with documented and proven experience under their belt doing precisely the work required on multiple projects that the new position entailed.

Promises, Promises

A sales force, selling materials and engineering services, had zero understanding of the actual capabilities and abilities of the engineering services group. Thus, they would routinely tell the customers that “we have a group that can do that” without any grasp whether what they were committing to was actually feasible. The group’s manager would then have to spend multiple hours per month explaining to now-irate-and-disappointed customers the actual capabilities of their group once the shortcomings of the promises were unveiled, and soothing and allaying those customers. The obvious result was that customers came away with a bad taste from their initial contact with the company – and a deep suspicion of the sales group’s competence and/or honesty.

Stupid… Is

In every single case, there were doubtless justifications for why each of these scenarios was the way it was, and why problems and bad behaviors remained unresolved. Institutional blinders, silo-thinking, and “we’ve always done it this way” can dominate even companies that pride themselves on being innovative and proactive. So take a step back. Walk through, whether physically or just as a mental exercise, what practices and procedures you have.

There’s a lot of stupid out there. Can you find yours – and in getting rid of it, make a step-change in your competitiveness?

Get out there and find the stupid.


© 2015, David Hunt, PE


3 thoughts on “Show Me the Stupid

  1. David,
    Enjoyed your article, and agree there is a lot of Stupid out there, much more of which Scott Adams has documented in his humorous portrayal of life as an engineer through his Dilbert comic strip.

    Keep up the good work. Maybe by shining a light on stupid, we can eventually stamp it out. (Wishful thinking).

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