A friend sent me a story about some totally effed up problem, industrial-wise, and I had a “response” It all follows here:

My friend’s post:

Got this in a letter, today. You may have seen it.

You don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate this story but it helps !!!!
A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty boxes, without the tube inside. This was due to the way the production line was set up, and people with experience in designing production lines will tell you how difficult it is to have everything happen with timing so precise that every single unit coming out of it is perfect 100% of the time. Small variations in the environment (which can’t be controlled in a cost-effective fashion) mean you must have quality assurance checks smartly distributed across the line so that customers all the way down to the supermarket don’t get ticked-off and buy another product instead.

Understanding how important that was, the CEO of the toothpaste factory got the top people in the company together and they decided to start a new project, in which they would hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem, as their engineering department was already too stretched to take on any extra effort.

The project followed the usual process: budget and project sponsor allocated, RFP, third-parties selected, and six months (and $8 million) later they had a fantastic solution – on time, on budget, high quality and everyone in the project had a great time. They solved the problem 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 out of it, pressing another button when done to re-start the line.

A while later, the CEO decides to have a look at the ROI of the project: amazing results! No empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were put in place. Very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That’s some money well spent!” – he says, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.

It turns out, the number of defects picked up by the scales was 0 after three weeks of production use. It should’ve 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 come back saying the report was actually correct. The scales really weren’t picking up any defects, because all boxes that got to that point in the conveyor belt were good.

Puzzled, the CEO travels down to the factory, and walks up to the part of the line where the precision scales were installed.

A few feet before the scale, there was a $20 desk fan, blowing the empty boxes out of the belt and into a bin.

“Oh, that,” says one of the workers – “one of the guys put it there ’cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang”.

Darrel speaking here: This may or may not be true, but it is a perfect example of the management not making their wishes known and or appreciated by the very people who can do something about the problem. Lazy D has been there. Lazy D has done that. This struck a memory chord in Lazy D…

My response:


You know, I only get calls for my services when there is something wrong in a plant. I am always told to meet the General Manager or the Plant manager on a new call. I never do that. The first guy I look for is the maintenance man. I have done industrial shit for a long time and I know who knows what the deal is. The maintenance supervisor or just maintenance guy either knows what the problem is, or is the source of the problem.
By the time I meet mid- to upper level management, I know what the deal is.
Whoever wrote this may have made it up, but I can guarantee you I have seen this play out in much more dramatic fashion. The last guy they talk to is usually the first guy they ought to.

Lemme give you a perfect example of this. And it just so happens to be one I was a player in. Of course, it’s gonna be a long dissertation because I’m not known for my brevity, but here goes:

I got a job at a hospital once. Just so happens to be the hospital I was born in, but that’s a whole different story…

Anyway, they had just finished a major expansion on the facility that included a “Birth Place”, and Operating Room suite, and many of the business offices when I got hired.
As I came in, I heard some complaints about the hot water service in the “Addition” The OR doctors were complaining that they couldn’t get hot water to wash their hands with in the scrub sinks. Additionally, everyone on that wing complained there was no hot water coming out of the hot water side. The powers that be – from the CEO down to the maintenance supervisor were pouring over blueprints and berating the design engineers trying to figure out what was going on with that. As a new guy that didn’t have that much to do, I offered to look into it since it may involve some “above the ceiling” work and stuff. I was not only denied, but when I wrote up work orders as “Looking into the hot water problem in the OR suite” (because I didn’t have anything else to do), I was told to back off because the design engineers and the general contractor and subs were looking at totally re-plumbing the whole project because of a lawsuit brought by some doctor group. I didn’t know anything about that kinda stuff so I was all like, “What ev…”

I was out.

I worked the weekend shift. And one day I was on an elevator going to do my rounds and a doctor got on. He was livid. He asked me if I was maintenance and I said I was. He asked why the hell we hadn’t figured out how to get hot water to the scrub sinks “…AFTER NINE FUCKING MONTHS!!” and I said I had looked into it and was pulled off in deference to the engineers. He asked me if I thought I could really figure it out. I said, “I probably can, but I don’t know how long it will take me. The ‘Brains’ have been working on it for a while and they don’t have a clue. It can’t be too hard though, it all boils down to cold water mixing with the hot water. The hot water generator is set to 160 degrees. You oughta need a burn cream just washing your hands. Somewhere, cold water is getting in a taking over.”
He told me he wanted me to work on NOTHING but that until I figured it out. I told him that would be great but my boss told me what to work on and they had specifically told me to leave that alone. He asked my name and got off the elevator.
I went to the maintenance shop and a few minutes later the phone rang.
It was my boss’s boss. His name was Wayne Thompson. We called him Wayne Bastard (long story).
Me: Maintenance.
Wayne Bastard: This is Wayne Thompson. Director of Facilities Management. Who’s this?
Me: Hey Wayne. This is Darrel.
WB: Darrel? You’re new, right?
Me: Yep, pretty much.
WB: Did you happen to talk to Doctor Bigdick today?
(Gotta tell you I don’t remember the docs name but he was apparently THE MAIN surgeon there. I’ll go with Dr. BD)
Me: Yessir. Ran into him in the elevator as I was coming off my ‘B’ rounds. Seemed to be a bit high strung. Why? Wassup?
WB: Dr. BD said you told him you could fix the hot water in the surgical suite. Is that true?
Me: In a way it is, Wayne. I told him it was a simple problem but everybody was looking for a complex solution. All it takes is a complete look at the system as it is, not as it’s drawn.
WB: you had no business telling him that.
Me: He asked me a question and I answered it. If you have a dialogue you want me to use when talking to doctors, give it to me. Otherwise, I’ll answer a question as honestly as I can.
WB: You don’t know the position this puts you, Dane (my immediate supervisor), and me in. This is what I want you to do: You spend the rest of the day looking like you are trying to solve the problem. I’ll have the engineers all over the building Monday. Sneak out if you have to, but just buy us time until we can figure this out. Got it?
Me: And If I figure it out, can I fix it?
WB: You won’t. It’s too complicated.
Me: (knowing good and damn well it wasn’t complicated) But if I do, can I fix it?
WB: Call me first.
Me: OK.

So I get a clipboard, a pencil, some paper and I set out. The water heater (HWG – Hot water generator) is in the basement. Cold water comes in off the main (CWM) and goes through it and off to the hot water main (HWM). the CWM and the HWM run side by side though the basement “above ceiling” Overhead and branch off to the Birth Place and OR above. I look at the mains and the branches from the HWG to the end of the various branches downstairs. I note where they penetrate any wall, floor or ceiling and I trace them out downstairs. Nowhere do I see them tied together in any way.

I go upstairs and ‘dress out’ to go into the OR suite. I look at my map and check every pipe penetration there is. Nothing. One room I can’t get into is the Housekeeping Storage Room. There is a penetration in there. I call Wayne from the nurses station. Dr. BD is at my side wanting to know my progress…

Me: Wayne, I have checked all the pipes except for a couple I can’t get to. I need to get into Room O-XXX House Keeping Storage – OR. Can you get somebody to let me in. I don’t seem to have a key for it.
WB: There are chemicals in there. You don’t need to get there. Forget it. Look like you’re doing something and let the engineers and I handle it Monday.
ME: OK, Dr. BD is right here. I’ll tell him you have it handled Monday.
WB: Dammit! I’ll get the Housekeeping On-Call to meet you at that room. Don’t touch anything in there. You’ve put me in a bad position. I’m not happy.
Me: Dr. BD shares your concern, Wayne. I have told him we are on it like white on rice. So you say you’ll have someone here soon to let us in that room?
WB: Yeah <dial tone>

A harried housekeeping person comes from the Physical Therapy floor about 15 minutes later. She opens the door. All I see is a mop sink, a lot of chemicals on a rack next to the sink, and some random supplies.
Me (to the housekeeping chick – HKC): What are those chemicals?
HKC: Cleaners. Some are for floors. Some are for tables (patient contact), some are for everything else.
Me: What do you use the mop sink for? Why is there a valve manifold on it?
HKC: We have to use warm water. Not hot, not cold, That thing mixes the water and gives us warm water to mix the cleaners with.
Me: You always get warm water? Not cold?
HKC: Yeah. Why?
I look at the manifold. There is a hot water and cold water spigot. Someone has made a manifold that hooks to both and the correct water temperature is determined by the ratio of the “openess” of the hot and cold water supplies. But when the water is not being used in there, there is no check valve to stop the hot water from going to the cold water feed or vice versa .

Basically, The cold water comes in off the street at X pounds per square inch (PSI).
It runs through the water heater which drops the pressure on the hot water side. So if the hot and cold headers are somehow hooked together (as they were in that manifold), when you turn on the hot water anywhere in the building, the cold water runs through the cold water feed to the mop sink at X pressure and goes into the hot water header since it is open somewhere and at a lower pressure. You get cold water in your hot water feed. I turn off the hot water valve to the manifold and go back to the nurses station to where Dr.BD is and tell him to try to go wash his hands. He looks at me funny but does. He turns on the hot water and it is a bit cool. Looks at me,,, “give it a minute”, I say, and soon it is some seriously hot water. Really hot! 160 degrees, in fact.
Dr. BD tells me this is much better but we need to not scald the hands of the surgeons. He kinda grins. Says, “Can you handle that or should I make a call?” I tell him to go do his ‘meat carving and then make the call. That’ll give me time to go downstairs and turn the HWG down to a regular temp while allowing the CEO and WB to think they had some input. Meanwhile, I’ll tell WB I found a solution but he can bring his engineers in to check behind my country ass to make sure I didn’t screw up their billing cycle. <snerk!>

The take away: 15 engineers came out Monday and part of Tuesday. They measured everything but our bowel movements and pronounced there to be no anomalies outside design parameters. Billed us a couple grand and went home. I fixed up the OR manifold with a check valve and turned it back on. Everybody was happy except WB who KNEW there was no problem to begin with and the engineers confirmed it.
A year later, I got a 27 cent raise and told them to stick it in their ass and went to industrial maintenance – where the money is.
Good times!