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The Value of Stupidity

Fresh eyes can translate to fresh ideas

Flat TireI recently bought a new car. My wife and I had previously both driven cars from this particular manufacturer, and both vehicles were terrific and reliable. However, there was one small problem- our tire pressure lights wouldn’t turn off. While that was annoying, I maintained brand loyalty and got a new car from the same manufacturer. Sure enough, after a few months the tire pressure light came on. My initial thought was “here we go again,” and I ignored it.

And that was how I came to drive for several weeks on a marginally flat tire until it went completely flat. Of course, I felt foolish when someone asked me why I didn’t check the tire pressure when the light came on. My best response was “because I assumed there was something wrong with the light.” Yikes.

That story has significant implications in the workplace when trying to improve processes. My past experience had conditioned my brain to think a certain way. Even when it should have been obvious that I needed to think differently, I didn’t see it. And it’s not just me…

Business example #1:

A manufacturing company had a large machine that was cylindrical on top and had a very oddly placed oil tank opening- it was practically impossible to fill the tank without spilling. And spilled oil had in fact run down from the cylinder into the machine itself, causing all manner of problems. Replacing the machine was financially impossible, so they’d dealt with this problem for years. They had actually stuffed work pants and bed sheets into the machine to catch the excess oil before it did any damage. (Picture that!) The estimated cost of wasted oil plus machine repairs due to spillage was $150,000 the prior year, justifying a process improvement project. A team was formed that consisted of the machine operators and newer people. After the problem was explained in the first meeting one of the new people raised his hand and asked, “Why not just buy a funnel?” YIKES.

Business example #2:

In a prior article about an MRI process I spoke of a situation in which a hospital had two fast scanners and one slow one. Their scheduling process had always consisted of keeping the fast scanners running nonstop and letting the slow one catch the overflow. While that doesn’t sound like a bad idea, it prevented them from asking a key question: Why was the slow one slow? They debated how to improve efficiency for a few months before a new person finally asked that question. The answer was that the “slow” one actually wasn’t slower than the others- it just took a smaller picture and had to be reset for larger images. So the new person followed up with “why not just use it when you need smaller images?” YIKES!

These examples have a common thread- the person that offered the obvious-but-game-changing solution was not a subject matter expert. My experience has been that if you want to maximize the probability of success in identifying solutions, build your team by combining subject matter experts with people that are not intimately familiar with the current process. The non-experts have the ability to take a needed fresh look at the situation. And make sure the non-experts have the valuable quality of not being embarrassed if they ask a dumb question. If they shut down when their first comment isn’t pure gold, then they lose their value.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to change a tire.

Ralph Smith

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