A toothpaste factory had a problem: Due to the way the production line was set up, sometimes empty boxes were shipped without the tube inside. 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 off of it is perfect 100% of the time. Small variations in the environment (which cannot be controlled in a cost-effective fashion) mean quality assurance checks must be smartly distributed across the production line so that customers all the way down to the supermarket won’t get frustrated and purchase another product instead.
Understanding how important that was, the CEO of the toothpaste factory gathered the top people in the company together. Since their own engineering department was already stretched too thin, they decided to hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem.
The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP (request for proposal), third-parties selected, and six months (and $8 million) later a fantastic solution was delivered — on time, on budget, high quality and everyone in the project had a great time. The problem was solved 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 off the line, then press another button to re-start the line.
A short time later, the CEO decided to have a look at the ROI (return on investment) of the project: amazing results! No empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were put in place. There were very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That was some money well spent!” he said, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.
The number of defects picked up by the scales was 0 after three weeks of production use. How could that be? It should have 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 indicated the statistics were indeed correct. The scales were NOT picking up any defects, because all boxes that got to that point in the conveyor belt were good.
Perplexed, the CEO traveled down to the factory and walked up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed. A few feet before the scale, a $20 desk fan was blowing any empty boxes off the belt and into a bin. Puzzled, the CEO turned to one of the workers who stated, “Oh, that…One of the guys put it there ’cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang!”
I was once on a US military ship, having breakfast in the wardroom when the Operations Officer (OPS) walks in. This guy was the definition of NOT a morning person; he’s half asleep, bleary eyed … basically a zombie with a bagel. He sits down across from me to eat his bagel and is just barely conscious. My back is to the outboard of the ship, and the morning sun is blazing in one of the portholes putting a big bright-ass circle of light right on his barely conscious face. He’s squinting and chewing and basically just remembering how to be alive for today. It’s painful to watch.
But then zombie-OPS stops chewing, slowly picks up the phone and dials the bridge. In his well-known-I’m-totally-asleep voice he says, “Heyyyy. It’s OPS. Could you … shift our BAFPAT … yeah, one-six-five. Thanks.” And puts the phone down. And he just sits there. Squinting. Waiting.
And then, ever so slowly, I realize that that big blazing spot of sun has begun to slide off the zombie’s face and onto the wall behind him. After a moment it clears his face and he blinks slowly a few times and the brilliant beauty of what I’ve just witnessed begins to overwhelm me. By ordering the bridge to adjust the ship’s back and forth patrol by about 15 degrees, he’s changed our course just enough to reposition the sun off of his face. He’s literally just redirected thousands of tons of steel and hundreds of people so that he could get the sun out of his eyes while he eats his bagel. I am in awe.
He slowly picks up his bagel and for a moment I am terrified at the thought that his own genius may escape him, that he may never appreciate the epic brilliance of his laziness (since he’s not going to wake up for another hour). But, between his next bites he pauses, looks at me, and gives me the faintest sly grin, before returning to gnaw slowly on his zombie bagel.