Monday, May 27, 2013

When Problem Solving, Remember Occam's Razor

A friend sent me an email with an interesting story about a manufacturing plant that made me think of Occam's Razor. The plant had a conveyor belt upon which cardboard cartons filled with product would make their way to the despatch centre. Several times each day, an empty cardboard carton would arrive in the despatch centre and had to be returned to the processing plant. This wasted a considerable amount of time and disrupted the efficient flow of product.

The Chief Executive Officer of the processing plant hired an industrial engineering consultant to look into the problem and come up with a solution. Three months later, after the consultant had interviewed staff, inspected all the processing operations and read all the user manuals, he came up with his solution. The consultant's fee was only $380,000  and his solution involved fitting the conveyor belt line with a scale. As each box went over the scale, it was weighed; if it was under weight (an empty box), an alarm sounded, the conveyor belt stopped and a labourer would run over, remove the box and press a button to recommence the conveyor belt.

This solution worked well, but after several months, statistical reports indicated that the conveyor belt had not been stopped on one occasion for some weeks. The CEO, keen to find out why there appeared to be no longer a need for the weighing machine decided to go to the conveyor belt and find out why they had gone from five or six unfilled cartons daily to none.

While speaking to the labourer who was responsible for removing the boxes and restarting the conveyor belt he asked why there had not been any stoppages of the conveyor belt for such a long time. The labourer advised him that he had become tired of having to walk over to the conveyor belt, switch it off, remove the carton and switch on the belt again, so he had installed a small fan along the belt and every time a carton went in front of the fan and wasn't filled with product, the fan blew the carton off the conveyor belt.

The CEO was astonished. He had just spent over $380,000 for a solution that the labourer had resolved by installing a $25 fan. The message here is covered by Occam's Razor ... always look for the simplest solution first.


PS: Do you always look for the simplest solution? Tell us about it.

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