One dark and stormy morning, Dr. Richard Noirimetla, private failure investigator, was sitting at his desk nursing his morning cup of joe. It was an addiction, but life, and engineering was hard. Intense eyes sat in a round dark-skinned face. An engineering degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology hung from the wall in his sparse office. Lightning flashed outside of his window, as the rain began to beat even harder against his corner office windows.
His phone rang.
“Hello, Dr. Noirimetla, Private Failure Investigator here.” He said in deep, polite voice. “How may I help you?”
“Ah, I’m Chief of Manufacturing for Galileo Concrete Pillars Inc. We have a bit of a problem here. We used to see a failure rate above 33% for our concrete pillar operation. As part of our lean manufacturing efforts we tried to reduce that number through various improvements. However, we see a failure rate of almost 50% now. We expect foul play… from one of our suppliers. Can you come right away?” a worried man’s voice sounded over the phone.
“I see, that’s very troubling,” Noirimetla rumbled. “I’ll send over the contract detail. There will be an increased fee, but I’m on my way.”
“Sounds good, we’ll pay anything! Just get our operation up to standards!” The man bid a polite goodbye and hung up.
Noirimetla looked out the window at the rain beating against his window, and thought of Southern India where the humidity had the decency to be hot. He called his secretary and asked him to rearrange his schedule for the day.
He thought of the cold rain on his balding head and put a wool fedora on. He decanted his coffee into a thermos, and took another swig for the road. Shouldering his waxed canvas trench coat, a gift from his wife, he walked out the door into the cold Chicago morning. Headed for mystery at Galileo Concrete Pillars Inc.
Noirimetla sat in the conference room provided for him. His notes scattered in front of him, when she walked in. She was wearing conservative, professional dress. Noirimetla’s eyes devoured the label on the front of the manila folder she held close to her chest.
“Here is the list of improvements we made as part of our lean efforts,” She said in a husky voice. She handed him the folder, which he took greedily; almost entirely forgetting the helpful intern’s presence.
“Thank you for preparing that so quickly,” Dr. Noirimetla said gratefully.
“Let me know if you need anything else. I’ll be on the shop floor doing quality inspection.” She said as she turned around to get back to work.
Noirimetla read the papers carefully. He would occasionally let out an interested, “hmm,” as his eye spotted something interesting. Carefully, he noted each one. He listed the top three likeliest choices and took out his phone. He called the supplier of their aggregate and scheduled an appointment.
It was after lunch. The sky had cleared but a cold humidity fought with the winds off the lake for control of Chicago. The man walked into the office where Noirimetla’s notes were waging a successful war over table surface area. A ceramic coffee mug as well as a recently emptied foam cup from lunch sat beside Noirimetla’s right hand. The man had dark eyes set in a young, well-kept face. His clothes were fashionable, and Noirimetla’s intuition went off with alarm at once. This man was not an engineer, but perhaps a mid-level salesman. Would he have the information Noirimetla required?
After a round of civilities, Noirimetla got to the business at hand. “Tell me about your quality control and traceability for the aggregate you supply.”
The man didn’t even blink as he took out a prepared sales pamphlet. “We supply to structural companies often. As a company we fully understand the risk a precast concrete company takes by supplying rated structural components. As you can see our regular lab testing is best in class, and our aggregate’s uniformity is unmatched. Our company is proud to hold a few patents on rock crusher technology.”
Dr. Noirimetla didn’t even blink at the sales pitch. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t seen before. He flipped through the pamphlet and asked efficient questions at certain points. Operating under the new information he called up the helpful intern from earlier, and asked her to walk him through the company’s incoming aggregate testing.
Thirty minutes later they were standing in the factory’s testing lab. “As you can see we take their report, and do our own tests to match every incoming batch. All this is stored and logged in a computer. We can trace every pillar.”
She looked askew at the salesman and Noirmetla. Her voice lowered. “To tell you the truth…” She trailed off.
“Oh?” Noirimetla encouraged her, his soft Indian accent toning his Oxford English.
“Well, I’ve been doing the testing as part of my internship. With all the improvements we’ve been doing as part of our lean efforts. Well…” she paused. “Our pillars have never been better. They’re passing every test with flying colors. They couldn’t be more perfect. I just don’t understand how they’re breaking.”
Noirimetla paused for a moment. He took out his list and crossed number one and two off it. He looked at item three. “Take me to the laydown yard where you store the pillars.” He said authoritatively. “I have a hunch.”
The CEO, the salesman, chief of manufacturing, head engineer, and the intern all sat around the conference table. The papers had been put away, back into Noirimetla’s briefcase, but a fresh cup of coffee sat steaming at the end of the desk where he was standing in front of the white board.
“It’s not the suppliers.” Noirmetla said authoritatively, gauging his audience for effect. The three company men looked upset. The salesman, relieved.
“What then?” asked the CEO, already feeling out of depth in what would undoubtedly be another tedious technical conversation. “I thought I told everyone to fix this already? I’ve been going around the shop floor improving things all week! You know we’re going to be a lean 3% or better company!” His engineers started making eye contact with various inanimate objects around the room. Noirimetla suddenly understood a lot more.
“Right…” Noirimetla paused briefly to muster courage in the face of business administration. “It all started when the lean improvements began.”
“A list was compiled by the engineering team, and it was all set to go in stages. Each change was supposed to be enacted, and then measured for improvement.” Dr. Noirimetla got into his teaching cadences from his days as a college professor. “However, in a rush to solve the problems sooner, some changes were made without being added to the list or documented properly.” Noirimetla tried not to look at the CEO.
“It seems that at some point, the forklift operators were told to put a third concrete block under the pillars to support them on the laydown yard.”
“What’s wrong with that? Asked the CEO? More support less broken pillars, it makes sense to me!” He stated loudly. Understanding began to dawn on the head engineers face.
Noirimetla continued. “At first thought, it would seem so, but consider the scenario where the ground isn’t level.”
“What? How much are we paying this guy!” The CEO rudely inquired. “I’ve got to get on a plane in three hours.”
Noirimetla was used to being under fire by unprofessional conduct, and labored on anyway. “Here, let me draw a picture.”
“As you can see, the pillars are stored on their side. They are picked up sideways by forklifts and transported sideways on trucks. It makes sense even though their final operation is vertical.” Noirimetla began to draw. “Here is the regular support. Note the two blocks dividing the concrete neatly into thirds?”
Drawing the arrows denoting force he said, “as you can see the force is evenly distributed across the pillar and the moments almost balance.”
“Now look at the pillar with three supports” He drew a second pillar with three supports.
“It looks fine to me.” said the CEO.
“Ah, but what if the ground isn’t level?” Dr. Noirimetla proposed.
Norimetla erased the supports and drew in a slanted ground. In this picture only two of the three supports held the pillar. “Now tell me, how do your pillars look after they break?” He said to the intern.
“They break in the middle or the break slightly off-center” She replied quickly. She had spent hours documenting and photographing the breaks.
This is because there are two failure modes! “Previously, the support was equidistant. Now the support either cantilevers the beam, or holds it at its very end causing a large bending moment in the middle” He said while drawing the two failure modes.
“All you have to do to solve you breaking pillars is go back to the way you were doing it before!” Noirimetla confidently stated.
“That’s stupid!” The CEO raised his voice. “How can not improving something help?”
“If you don’t believe me, do a test.” Noirimetla said.
The head engineer and chief of manufacturing spoke up. The conversation finally turned into the territory of action. Yelling in meetings was not their strength, but proving things was.
“It makes sense.” They talked the CEO down and got approval for the test. “We’re on it.” The CEO looked sullen, his prediction had self-fulfilled again.
After some residual arguing, Noirimetla shook hands. “Give me a call when the test is complete, I’ll have a written report on my findings in a week.”
He walked out of the building, and stood under the awning with the Galileo Pillar Company logo emblazoned on it. He put his fedora back on and flipped his collar up against the rain which had started again. From under his coat where he had been holding it with his arm he took his thermos out and took a swig of coffee. A smile played across his lips as he walked across the parking lot to his sensible family minivan. Solving a problem always felt good.
That was a little different. Let us know if you like this sort of thing. Dr. Noirimetla is looking for more classic failure examples to solve, and more dangerous bureaucratic situations to cleverly and professionally evade. If you have one you’d like to suggest please do so in the comments. This example was based on a chapter from Design Paradigms, Case Histories of Error and Judgment Engineering by Henry Petroski.