Fit by design

Created by cjalvarado
October 10, 2012

Collectively, the designers obsess over each product, stripping away non-essential parts, and reworking tiny details. Jonathan Ive

I read a story about a group of American car executives that went to see a Japanese assembly line.  At the end of the line, the car doors were placed on hinges just as they were in the American factories.  However, in the US, a line worker would stand at the end of the line and use a mallet to make sure the edges of the doors fit perfectly.  In the Japanese line there were no such people.

Confused, an American executive asked at what point they made sure the door fit perfectly. The guide looked at him and said, “We make sure they fit when we design it.”  In the Japanese plant when a problem like that arose they didn’t examine the problem and brainstorm new ways of fixing that problem.  Instead, they engineered it so they got the outcome they wanted from the beginning.  If they didn’t reach it, they understood that it was because of a decision they made at the start of the process.

Some would argue that at the end of the day, doors got on cars and off the assembly line so what difference does it make?  After all, the outcomes were met right? I think it’s important to acknowledge that in both cases the doors did appear to fit but only in one case did they fit by design.

I struggled with this story.  On one hand, I know I’ve had to make things work and took the metaphorical mallet to make it so. On the other hand, I’ve been in scenarios where that became the norm and I hated it.  I hated it because it felt like we never really cared enough to make something as special as it could have been.

It’s easy to start something, it’s easy to whip out the mallets and make them fit. In some organizations the mallets and the people that yield them seem to be so common that people don’t know anything different. They’re used to manipulating the doors to make them fit and that’s standard mode of operation.  As effective as these tactics may be in the short term, as a strategy, adding people and mallets to organizations to fix problems that originate with our actions as leaders is never good. It isn’t reliable and it isn’t sustainable.

How many of your problems are caused because they weren’t fit by design?

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