Problems at Toothpaste Factory

Lazy people finding the best solutions: The toothpaste factory story

A couple of days ago I read this amazing story about problems and solutions in big businesses. Since this story is amusing as well as it is authentic I would like to share it with you.

Problems at Toothpaste Factory
via elmada

The story takes place at a big toothpaste company:

Process Optimization at the toothpaste manufacturing line

A couple of years ago the company had been struggling with a major issue in its processes: The company was delivering a disproportionally high amount of empty packaging via its supply chain. Wholesalers and end consumers were getting more and more furious: The wholesalers had to pay in advance for probably empty packages and end consumers went home discovering they bought some very expensive air at the drug store hours before.

It may sound trivial at first: Getting a tube of toothpaste into some cardboard packaging. But many experts might agree: Every product that is produced via an automated manufacturing line is a complex puzzle of science and technology. This was one of the main reason the current CEO decided to tackle the problem in a structured and systematic manner rather than yelling at people who were pushing buttons along the process. He did not have any spare ressources at hand so he initiated a project, set aside an appropriate budget and hired external engineers as well as a consultancy. Then project was staffed with 14 people and took over 5 months of hard work and cost around 8 million Euro.

The experts analysed every detail of the problem as well as the manufacturing process. They set out to a simple key objective: No empty toothpaste box is going to leave the factory again! They actually came up with a working solution: They implemented a step after the packaging process that would weigh each toothpaste box before it left the manufacturing line. Every box that would identify as too light-weight would trigger an alarm causing the manufacturing line to be paused. A factory worker would be notified and then would have to take the empty carton of the line and restart it by the press of a button. The project was implemented, documented and filed under the label “success”.

The following months almost every department at the toothpaste company noticed positive developments: Customer satisfaction numbers were up, cost for re-deliverys and customer support were reduced drastically. Everyone at the company was happy with the result.

Six months after the project finished the CEO took it upon himself to evaluate the effect of the project. His judgement was – without a doubt – a very positive one. He felt the 8 Mio. € were money well-spend. But: By looking through the project’s documentation as well as the current factory performance metrics he noticed something strange. During the last 2 months there was not a single record of a toothpaste carton being marked “too light” and therefore removed from the line.
What was this? Some sort of counting error? If this was correct it would either mean that the implemented system was faulty or the project itself had been a waste of time. He took to his project lead and had him explain the metrics. After careful analysis the project lead declared the numbers accurate.

Suprised and a little angry the CEO had the project lead follow him into the factory where he hoped to find more answers. When reaching the end of the manufacturing line they would not believe their eyes: Right before the implented carton scale someone had placed a box-standard fan that was blowing air across the manufacturing line. It would blow every toothpaste box that was too light-weight right into a garbage can that was on the other side of the line. This was the reason no faulty boxes had been recorded.

Further investigation revelead that this was done by the employee put in charge of manually removing the empty boxes from the manufacturing line. At some point he had gotten fed up with walking over to the manufacturing line and removing the boxes while the alarm was sounding …

Summary: What can we learn from the toothpaste company example?

  • The best solution is not always supplied by the person featuring the best CV
  • The best projects do not have to start with a big-time project plan done in MS Visio
  • Practice trumps theory
  • Sometimes there is more expertise within the own ranks than one might expect

For me this example validates my belief in simple solutions.

What do you think?

Christoph Kleine
Christoph Kleine

... is Managing Director at THE BIG C Agency & founder of Besides Online Marketing he works on issues of Usability, Web-Analytics, Marketing-Controlling and Business Development. Xing, LinkedIn.

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