One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new company, it at lunch or during a break, ask:
“Any major disasters that impacted reliability?”
Typically, there are three stories that start with, “Remember the… “, or, “One time…”
It seems every organization has legendary stories in the organizational memory.
The Pick Roller Story
When I first joined HP as a Design for Manufacturing engineer, the first story I heard was about the pick roller.
This small part is what grabs a sheet of paper from the tray and moves it into the printing pathway.
Apparently, as a means to reduce cost the rubbery bit of the roller was changed from a separate part to being formed directly on the spindle.
This eliminated alignment and attachment steps, thus reduced cost.
What wasn’t obvious to the team prior to the onset of field failures, was the manufacturer of the newly combined spindle and pick roller included a plasticizer within the polymer of the pick roller.
The bad part is the plasticizer blooms to the surface of the roller making it very slick, thus unable to ‘pick’ a sheet of paper.
Nearly all the product testing involved extreme use or conditions all of which did not reveal the issue. It was most accelerated at normal use conditions with relatively infrequent printing – as most people did.
In the lab we would print thousands of sheets a day, effectively removing the bloomed plasticizer as it arrived avoiding the building of a slick coating.
Along with the story was the lesson that I keep in mind to this day, always think through how a change will alter how a product can fail.
Thinking through the assembly process and design change with an FMEA may have altered the team to the potential for the plasticizer bloom issue.
The other lesson that this legend shared was there are many ways a product can fail.
No amount of reliability testing can find all of the potential paths to failure.
The legend’s purpose
The pick roller legend served to remind the organization to consider the impact of design and process changes on product performance.
It was effective because it was memorable.
It was a story, often told as a mystery – what could be causing the pick roller from working, ‘we checked everything’.
Legends or stories provide an organizational memory. They provide a way to pass along the lessons learned.
They also provide a sense of community, as the pick roller story was real, happened here, and affected our customers.
The stories provide a caution or guide that allow us to avoid the same dire fate, or benefit from doing some task or process correctly.
The stories in our organization tend to be effective, more so than a lessons learned database.
Through story, we connect to the events and lesson.
Limits of legends
As I ask for stories, I find there is generally only a few in the organizational memory.
Often only three such stories. Sometimes a couple more.
Maybe this is due to the infrequency of legendary events, or it’s due to our limited capacity to store in our memories more than a few stories.
As new legends enter the organizational memory the older ones fade.
This is unfortunate as the lessons remain valuable if the stories are recalled.
As the story fades the chance the organization will re-learn the lesson increases.
Do you have legendary stories?
If so, tell them often. Keep them fresh.
Maybe we should make a repository of such stories (told without revealing trade or company secrets or violating non-disclosure rules). I’m sure it would be entertaining.
Though not sure the stories from another organization would truly enter your organization’s memory and serve the same purpose as your own legendary stories.
If you have a legend or two and would like to share it, please add to the comments below.
If you find the stories useful, how so? What has a legendary story helped you accomplish or avoid?
Do you have ‘story-time’ in your organization?
Purpose of a Reliability Program (article)
Success as a Reliability Engineer (article)
Reliability as Part of Every Decision (article)
Bill Meeker says
I like the story about the pick roller. I also have heard about (and in a few cases was directly involved) in some reliability disasters (as I call them). Some of these were used in the two papers that I coauthored on “Pitfalls of Accelerated Testing” (one in 1998 and another in 2013, after we had seem many more).
Fred Schenkelberg says
Thanks for the comment Bill. This was a fun article to write.
The power of stories, especially horror or disaster stories serves an important role in the building of an organization’s culture. While we may not be able to influence which stories are told, we can help improve and keep specific stories alive – in the retelling.
A great place for such stories is in training and seminars within the organization.