The $500,000 Solution to a $12 Problem

John was the CEO of ACME Toothpaste and he was always looking for ways to make his factory more efficient. One of the areas he was looking into was the problems caused when an empty box somehow made its way to a store without containing a tube of toothpaste. When a large box packed with individual boxes of toothpaste arrived at a store, the store would check in the big box and then unpack the individual boxes onto the shelves. If one of the individual boxes was missing a tube of toothpaste, it caused a lot of inconvenience for the store and the company because of the amount of time it took to straighten out the accounting, refunds, etc. On top of all that, empty boxes made the toothpaste company look bad to their customers.

John knew he could improve their efficiency and bolster their relationship with stores if they could make sure they didn’t ever ship out a box that was missing a tube of toothpaste. A high priced consultant was brought in who studied the assembly line and installed a laser system that would shine on the side of each box as it came down the line. If there was no tube in the box, a faint red glow would show up on the opposite side of the box. A sensor could detect this, stop the line, and set off an alarm to notify workers that the box needed to be removed before it got packed. If a tube was present, the sensor wouldn’t see the glow and the box would continue normally down the line.

The system was expensive and by the time it was all wired into the controls and the consultant was paid it cost over half a million dollars. Still, the CEO was satisfied. It worked well in all their tests and the cost of dealing with even infrequent empty boxes was high enough to justify the investment.

After the system had been running for over a month, John was pleased to see in his monthly report that they had not shipped a single empty box. Happy that everything was working as designed, he continued going through the report but was confused when he got to a new line on the report that indicated how many times the system had detected an empty box. There were a few detections the first week the system was installed, but none in the last few weeks. This was unusual and he assumed that something wasn’t reported correctly, so he went down to the line…

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