May 31, 2011 by Dick Morley
We have all heard of K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid. There is a lot of truth to that expression. In my life, I have learned that, in many cases, it is often the simplest solution that is best.
This is not to say that it doesn’t require imagination or intellect to get to this solution; it just means that we often complicate things more than they need to be. The basic idea is not to think too fast or too complex.
Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” This is true, especially in engineering. I have provided some examples from my life below.
In the mid-1960s, my firm – Bedford Associates Inc. – was contracted to build a special sorting machine for oranges. The customer wanted the top layer of the boxes of oranges to be the same colour – mainly for esthetic purposes. If the colours are mixed, no one buys that box. In real life, not every orange is the same shade. We were hired to design a handling system and a colour sorting system that would ensure that the top layer was the same colour. We planned to have a conveyor system pass the oranges through a scanner and then divert each one to a container of similar colours. Keep in mind that this was the 1960s, so there were no cute little cameras. We had to use gels and shutters and special lighting. We were having a good time and things were going swimmingly…or so we thought.
One Friday afternoon, well into the contract, my customer called and said, “Cancel the contract.” I panicked. It was a large portion of our work at that time. I asked, “When do you want to close the contract?” “Right now,” he answered. I started to ask why. He didn’t have the time to explain, other than to say that we were doing a good job, but it just wasn’t imaginative enough.
Three weeks later, I called the customer and said, “I have to know.” I just needed to know what solution they ended up going with. He said that they decided to paint the oranges. Why hadn’t I thought of that? It’s so simple that it passed right by me.
Another example relates to my HVAC experience. As some of you know, I was a technical contributor to the HVAC systems that Andover Controls – a startup – was using. We spent several years trying to get the company into the sunshine. We kept spending investor money and not doing well. We didn’t understand why. The technology was superb and performed very well, and it was about one-third the cost of the existing real-time minicomputers serving the market.
The problem was our own ego management. We had no idea what we were selling. Yes, we knew that we were physically selling heating, ventilating and air conditioning units, but that’s not what we were really selling, and it was our inability to realize this that was the issue.
One day, several of us were sequestered in a quiet conference room. What were we really selling? We bandied all day long. Maybe the technology was wrong? How about the communications system? The temperature sensors? After a long, argumentative day, we decided we were in the comfort business. Aha! We were selling comfort! We overlooked the obvious and instead looked at what was interesting to us – the actual technology. Once we made this discovery and re-evaluated our approach, sales climbed and the company became quite successful.
My last example brings us back to my days with the National Center for Manufacturing Science (NCMS). I am still a member, but I used to be on the board, part of the science committee and, for several years, chairman of the board.
One day, NCMS had a major government meeting with a Marine Corps general – a nice fellow with a fantastic four-letter word vocabulary. When I arrived at the meeting, slightly tardy, I sat down at the back of the room and the general said, “About *#@! time you got here. We have a problem in Iraq. Only about 10 percent of my helicopters are battle ready at any one time. The sand and maintenance problem is unbelievable. We have to send motors needing repair back to the USA.”
I assumed my usual arrogant stance. I asked him what the biggest problem was. He answered, “I am flying your father’s Oldsmobile. It is old; takes 20 to 30 years to get a new design and I need the helicopters today.”
He told me that the biggest problems were cables and cable connections. I replied, “What you need is to go wireless.” He exploded. “I want the *#@! helicopters fixed, not redesigned.” I persisted somewhat but began to wither under the barrage of four-letter words.
He quieted down some and said he wanted a suggestion of what he could do today, not tomorrow. I floundered about and could not come up with much. He asked me how I would get an automobile fixed in the United States. “Simple,” I said. “I would go to the auto parts store, order the parts and fix it myself.”
He eventually came up with the solution that the cables chosen, according to the 80/20 rule, would be stocked in offshore repair facilities. The stricken helicopter could be carried out of the field to offshore floating platforms and quickly fixed.
Much later he said that his operating helicopters doubled to 20 percent after establishing the offshore floating repair shops. Using principles that exist and his knowledge of the field resulted in a very simple solution to a big problem.
I usually think about solving the whole problem. My ego hurt for at least a week after that one.
It just shows you how dumb we can be sometimes; how we assume solutions too quickly. I feel dumb at least once a day. Think before entering the arena. Look before you leap.
Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.