Mr. Potato Head: Thinking like a Good Industrial Engineer

Mr. Potato Head: Thinking like a Good Industrial Engineer

The Mr. Potato Head simulation developed by Dr. Dave Williams (instructor notes available at Dave’s website teaches people how to use Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles. Teams are challenged to build Mr. Potato Head as fast as possible so that the assembled toy matches a standard construct as judged by one team member using a three point scale. The last few times I have led the simulation, we used the standard shown at left.

The simulation teaches elements of testing changes to improve performance. It uses the basics of Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle as defined by the authors of The Improvement Guide and discussed in this blog post.

Here’s how we pose the simulation aim to teams: Build Mr. Potato Head as fast and accurately as possible by the end of the simulation session.

The first build cycle typically takes 60 seconds or more with less than perfect accuracy, as shown by the record from one of our simulation sessions at left.

To run a second cycle, teams take Mr. Potato Head apart and prepare to build it again.

After the third cycle, a few teams may hit on the idea of not disassembling Mr. Potato Head at all, just having a Mr. Potato Head “ready to go.”

At the “3-2-1-go!” signal, a team using the idea of a “ready to go” Mr. Potato Head just presents the assembled toy to the inspector. Less than 1 second to have the task done.

The innovative teams reason this way:

If the purpose of assembling a Mr. Potato Head is to have a Mr. Potato Head that matches the photo, then just skip the disassembly to start from scratch and then skip the new assembly!

These teams demonstrate a fundamental engineering insight: the best way to improve an assembly operation is to eliminate the need for assembly entirely.

Shigeo Shingo codified this insight when he distinguished between process and operations analysis (discussed here)

Practical Application

A couple of hours after last week’s Mr. Potato Head simulation--part of an educational program for program managers at a federal agency--we had a real application of the fundamental engineering insight.

One of the project teams described an opportunity to improve a service request form. In the past, customers have filled out forms indifferently and inconsistently. The total number of customers is relatively small, about 20, though each customer may work through more than one request for service.

The improvement suggestion: eliminate the need for customers to fill out the form. Rather, have the service manager interview the customers and log the service requests directly so that services can be scheduled for delivery. No need to redesign the service request form and struggle to shape customer behavior.

The team is still considering the opportunity—the legacy form has a strong hold on their thinking and there are some practical issues to work out. Nonetheless, a small-scale test of the “eliminate the form” idea seems like a good idea.

Gerry Nadler’s General Design Perspective

Industrial engineer Gerry Nadler studied practices of effective planners and designers when he developed a theory of planning and design. In particular, effective designers know how to think about a flexible range of purposes. Nadler describes how to construct a hierarchy of purposes, from smaller to larger, to operationalize this design thinking.

Nadler shows that if you shift attention to a larger purpose relative to your original purpose, you open the door to creative and powerful designs. See G. Nadler (1981), The Planning and Design Approach, Wiley Interscience: New York, chapter 12 “Operational Details on Pursuing the P&D Approach”, pp. 135-142.

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