Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How Do You Know That's The Real Problem?

How Do You Know That’s the Real Problem?

Oct 12, 2011
When I was at Sun Microsystems, one of my favorite questions to a new systems engineer would be eight simple words: “How do you know that’s the real problem?”   

This question typically came about as preparation for an upcoming customer visit. The sales team might be bringing me in to discuss Sun’s future software and hardware directions under a non-disclosure agreement. The pre-briefing scenario would usually be the sales representative giving me the historical background of the account, how much business they are looking at doing with the customer this year, and the major hot buttons for this particular customer.  

The systems engineer would then give me the technical overview of the account. They might say something like, “They need new workstations because they cannot run their primary application fast enough.”  My next question would be, “How do you know that’s the real problem?” Often they would respond, “That’s what the customer told me.” My response would then be, “So, you really don’t know, but this is what the customer told you.”  The bottom line is that it was usually an opinion without any data to back it up. 

I am a huge believer in science and data. I am extremely leery when someone says that they “think with their gut.”  Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the good or bad feeling in your gut cannot augment a decision. But when it goes over a very small percentage of the decision-making formula, especially in business, you are in trouble. In the purely personal realm, sometimes a gut feeling is all you need to realize a person or a particular situation is trouble with capital letters. In business, having the data to back up your decision should be the preferred option.

One of my favorite quotes is from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, who famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, just not their own set of facts.” The primary challenge, with any type of data, is always context. Politicians are great at using numbers without context. A famous quote that implies the importance of context is from President Reagan, who once said about economists, “trust, but verify.” That is the right path to take with customers as well. No one would question a customer in the way that I questioned a junior Sun systems engineer in the scenario above, but it is certainly within reason to ask the customer if it would be OK to take a closer look at the situation.

One of best pieces of advice comes from Albert Einstein, who said, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.”  This is in line with the famous quote by Benjamin Franklin, the most brilliant American who ever lived in my biased opinion: “If I had 8 hours to cut down a tree, I would spend 6 of those sharpening my ax.”   

Both of those quotes have to do with allocating the right percentage of your time in dealing with a given situation. I am sure many of you can relate to the Einstein quote in regard to defining what the problem really is. How many times have you been in a meeting and someone raises their hand and asks, “Can we please define what problem we are really try to solve here?” It is interesting how often that is followed by prolonged silence.  

Another favorite story of mine involves speaker wire. A good friend of mine was convinced that he had to spend an ungodly amount of money on the T-Rex Super Shielded Mega Mother Speaker Wire for his home theater. I asked him, how do the little electrons know that this expensive speaker wire is so much better than unshielded? Has the vendor quantified the difference? More importantly, can you tell the difference? When I offered to bet him a $1,000 that he could not tell the difference with his ears, he decided to look into it. He went with unshielded speaker wire and is very happy today.

Let’s look at how MTConnect comes into play when a shop owner says, “I am looking at adding a third shift because we are not currently making our production schedule.”  

Again, a logical question might be: How do you know that's the real problem?

This is where MTConnect is elegant in its simplicity. For those of you new to MTConnect, here is a short primer. MTConnect can be thought of as the Rosetta Stone or Bluetooth for software applications. MTConnect is the protocol pipe that connects manufacturing equipment to software applications.    

For example, you would not go to your electronics store and buy just Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a technology that comes with your cell phone and your headset. Bluetooth is simply the protocol, or the rules of how these two devices will speak to each other, so you can tie your cell phone to your headset. MTConnect is simply that protocol that connects your manufacturing equipment to your software applications, such as monitoring software, your ERP system, or any other piece of software. Since MTConnect is an open and royalty-free protocol that uses proven Internet standards, it is absolutely brain dead easy for today’s software applications to speak to an MTConnect-enabled piece of manufacturing equipment.   

Monitoring applications that will provide real-time data on what is happening on your shop floor using the MTConnect protocol is the first step for this shop owner. The second step is getting that information integrated into that shop owner’s entire business. You might just find out that the real problem is that you do not have the data you need to make the business decisions to improve your shop or plant. This is where MTConnect comes in.

The best advice that I can give is to invest your time and sharpen your mental ax by coming and seeing, touching and learning how software applications and manufacturing equipment providers are using MTConnect to dramatically change manufacturing at the first-ever MC2 MTConnect: Connecting Manufacturing Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 8 to 10. Register today! 

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