Police line: Do not cross
Jun. 16, 2015 – My reading list includes more than physics books. I do read “guy” stories, and in recent columns, I have talked about my Saturday forays into the movie theatre to see a “no-content” movie. It helps relieve and empty the stuff running around my head.
One day, I was in my ever-willing Jeep listening to a detective story. In the fictional story, the hero complained that blocking off the crime site with tape that states, Police line – do not cross, constrains the possible solutions. In other words, isolation of the field limits solutions. Containment of possible solutions implies a connection to history that is likely invalid. Good financial analysis looks over the outside of the tape. One of my favourite quotes is not to solve a problem, but to “make a problem for others.” Innovators should not work in history but rather into the future.
The Gaussian curve, often quoted in error, displays the population of events over a baseline. We have to realize that the outlying distributions of solutions contained may offer more information than the middle lump implied by the Gaussian curve. Let’s give some examples of this principle.
The one that’s most exciting to me was during a press interview in Japan, where I was being interviewed by large companies to help establish innovation within the companies. One of the questions was, “How did your leader know to tell you to invent the PLC?” Even today, almost a decade after the question, I can’t think of an answer that makes sense to cross the chasm of culture. We do not seem able to work with our right brain as well as the left “logic” side.
I’m an automobile nut. We solve many problems by using inference instead of deductive logic. My friend Kris had an Unimog, a Mercedes-Benz off-road vehicle. He couldn’t seem to get the power right, and so he asked me and another friend what was wrong. We both said, “You need to change the spark advance.” We knew that I didn’t really know. We knew we couldn’t justify that decision. The solution was outside his suspected problem. His deducted solution could not reach over to the spark timing system — the police line was in the way. Hindsight makes the solution obvious.
Another story emerges as I write this. I was involved in the design of early fast food cash registers. White Castle, the originator of the fast food concept, wanted a computer cash register on its service counter. Decades ago, a register cost about $150 per station. The best minicomputer for the job then was Digital Equipment’s minicomputer.
The parts alone would require $3,200 hardware cost — well above any superhuman effort on cost reduction. The customer didn’t know why he wanted a computer but insisted that we build a computer “cash register.” He had no rational reason for doing this, but he knew he had to have a computer. No rational reason other than the coolness, probably.
Well, we designed and built a unit and it was bulletproof. The hardware cost was $3,200. Because of the software, the end-of-shift reporting was fast and accurate. We designed the keyboard not with a typewriter layout but with images of the products being sold. This keyboard required no personnel retraining.
We finished the task and informed the buyer of the $6,000-price tag. He said okay and we left money on the table. It turns out the auditing function alone saved him an hour a day, everyday of the year, and the big keyboard with images reduced employee turnover. It also gave him an extra hour of sleep. Again, he didn’t know why he wanted the computer, but he knew he had to have it. It’s okay to trust the right brain after all.
Most education teaches us how to solve solutions using the universe of history. It helps us to make better machines and devices that are faster, better and cheaper, but does not allow us to extrapolate from history future solutions.
In physics, we know that anything can happen, and it often does. Quantum mechanics and basic physics do not prohibit innovation. I was taught in my physics education that someone has already solved “all” the problems. What? That’s right. You assume a solution of a certain form and find out what solution format fits the problem. We are dragged into a solution domain already existent in the history of solutions.
Students often ask how I solve problems. Innovative people make connections that others cannot see. Youth is the place where that happens (oh, to be young again) and they have no pre-canned solutions. The educational process gives you the calculations for existent problems and prohibits innovative solutions. Go outside the “police tape” that constrains your solution of the murder mystery. This is not implying that the solution is outside the police line area, but it doesn’t let you look at the entire solution not just the one that is fenced off.
By the way, a book I like is Reacher by author Lee Child, and about my hero.
Dick Morley (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the inventor of the PLC, and author, speaker, automation industry maverick and self-proclaimed ubergeek.
This column originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.