A Toothpaste factory had a problem…

A toothpaste factory had a problem with their production line: some of the toothpaste boxes were not being filled with a tube of toothpaste so were being shipped empty, and this was pissing off their customers as you’d expect.

Production lines are very complicated machines so the boss hired a team of very expensive engineers to form an even more expensive plan to fix the problem. The solution was a machine that weighed each box to identify the empty ones, then a bell would ring and a worker would remove the empty box before restarting the production line. The project took ages to finish and cost a fortune, but it worked.

A few weeks later the boss reads a report showing that zero empty boxes were shipped since the fancy machine was installed, and he’s happy because all the time and money he spent was worth it. Then he sees that the machine only logged 3 empty boxes in the entire month instead of the hundred or so he was expecting, so he goes to visit the factory to see what’s going on.

What he sees right next to the new machine is a £20 desk fan blowing the empty boxes off the conveyor straight into a bin. “Who did this!?” he asks and one of the guys says “Bob did that because he was tired of walking over to the machine every time the bell rang”.

What does the toothpaste story teach us?

At first glance this story appears to be a warning about the ever present trap of over engineering something when a simpler and more elegant solution can be found with a little creative thinking. Or perhaps it serves as a reminder that the humble blue collar worker can outsmart a team of highly paid team of professionals? For me though, it means something different.

Don’t blame the engineers

It’s tempting to hold the engineering team responsible in this story because they were the ones who designed and installed a seemingly unnecessary and overpriced system, but I don’t agree with this because we don’t know exactly what the scope of the project was. For all we know finding the weight of the box could have provided value in addition to identifying the empties? Maybe the machine collected useful data? Or maybe it was integrated into other parts of the factory somehow?

Plus I know from experience that sometimes your client genuinely wants to spend their money on something they don’t actually need and no amount of reasoning will persuade them otherwise. And if at this point you suggest they use a twenty quid desk fan (or whatever the software equivalent is) they’ll say “we’ll consider it and get back to you”. But they probably won’t consider it, and they certainly won’t get back to you.

Want a problem solved? Then make it your own

Although shipping empty boxes isn’t ideal for business, in many ways the empty boxes are more of a problem for the customers than the factory. Customers have to discover random empty boxes then apply for refunds and that’s presumably more of a pain in the ass than sending out a few credit notes or replacement products?

We can assume the boss wasn’t apologising to customers and issuing refunds himself so even though it’s kinda his problem, he is somewhat disconnected from it. The engineering team didn’t make it their problem because they were being paid to design a machine, and they did exactly that. The solution was only found once it became Bob’s problem. And I bet our hero Bob didn’t give a shit about empty boxes until he had to get off his ass three times in one morning. Why? Because until then it wasn’t his problem.

For me then, the toothpaste story reminds me that if you want to solve a problem it’s best to make that problem your own. I imagine that the boss or any of the engineers could have come up with the fan method had they been the ones on the factory floor experiencing the problem first hand.