The Ten Square Foot Rule

It was the annual capital projects budget meeting and Brandon Knight had just made a proposal for a $120,000 project to correct a problem on one of its production lines.  As soon as he was done, Ashley Wolfe, the plant manager, asked him:  “Have you talked with the employees in the area about this?”  Knight had not.

Wolfe was dismayed.  “Let me tell you a story I learned from my professor in college.  It’s an urban legend type of story, but it will make the point.  A toothpaste manufacturer had a problem.  Boxes of toothpaste were being shipped without any toothpaste.  The engineers in the plant designed a system which could detect an empty box as it came down the assembly line.  A bell would then ring to alert the operator in the area.  A month after the system was designed and built (at a cost of $95,000), the engineers visited the area to see how their system was working.  They were astonished that the system had not detected any empty boxes the day they visited.  When they asked the operator about the system, they were told that the system worked like it was supposed to, but the alarm bell was a real pain.  The operator then told them that he turned the system off.  Instead of the system, he got a fan to blow across the assembly line.  The air from the fan was enough to blow off the empty boxes.  That worked well, but production goals weren’t being met.  Then he told them that the problem with the empty boxes was due to the jamming of the springs on the insertion device.  What he did was to reduce the speed of the insertor by one click and the jamming was solved.  There were no more empty boxes and the production goals were more than met.”

“I ask everyone who proposes a project to follow the ten square foot rule:  within 10 square feet of where the work is being done, the production employee is the expert.  Don’t ever make a proposal to me again without the approval of the expert.”

It’s amazing how little credibility we give individuals who do the actual work.  Why is that?  In many cases, we only respect the opinions of people who match our credentials.  In other cases, we just don’t know how to talk with people who are “beneath us.”  Our egos also get in the way.  We have the attitude that:  “I alone can fix this.”  As engineers, we learn a lot of tools and we want to use them, even when a better solution doesn’t require our tools.

The knowledge and experienced gained by the ten square foot expert can never be replaced by academic degrees or credentials.  We need to use the brainpower of these experts.

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“The only source of knowledge is experience.”  – Albert Einstein

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