Sunday, September 30, 2018

Problems and Murphy’s law.

Imagine that you are sitting at your desk in your office with ten people sitting in front of you with loads of problems on their mind that must be solved immediately and by none other than you. You look at the watch and realize that you have fifteen precise minutes, because that is the latest time by which you must leave office, if you want to catch your flight in time. In such a scenario, what would be your feelings? There is a feeling of inertia, because you want to continue in office and do not want to leave back unsolved matters. At the same time, there is a feeling of restlessness or anxiety. You do not want to miss the flight as there is an important appointment waiting for you.

I am sure that many of readers must have gone through such experiences. How such situations develop is a mystery. It is not that your journey has been decided at the last moment. It must have been planned at least a week before. Yet it is unknown how problems suddenly crop up on every front, when there is no time available to solve them.

Problems also crop up, when we are not in proper mental frame to receive them or rather they only crop up when we do not want to welcome them. I am reminded of one incidence, etched in my mind. I was working in Mumbai then. We were shifting office and we had decided to have a small get-together for the evening at the old venue after official office time was over. About 2 or 3 months before, we had supplied some equipment to a textiles mill in Mumbai and since then not a word was heard from them about commissioning the equipment. After the office time was over, as the first coke bottle was being opened, the phone rang. Our textile mill customer identified himself and requested us to start immediately for the mill as he was having some problems with our equipment. We had to give up idea of get-together and rush to the spot, where our equipment was supplied. It was well past midnight, when I reached home that night to finally assure my restless wife that all was well. In those days, Mumbai had very primitive kind of phone network and mobiles were non-existent. Wives did not worry too much, when husbands were delayed or were late.

As an equipment designer, I learned Murphy’s Law (Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. (1918 – 1990) was an American aerospace engineer who worked on safety-critical systems.) very early in my professional career. The law simply says, "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong". My early experiences or inexperience firmly imbibed this law in my mind. I shall give a very simple example. In most of the mechanical parts of any equipment, lock nuts or split pins are fitted on screws tightened with nuts so that they do not come loose. Imagine that in some hypothetical equipment, someone goofed and forgot to put some such locking device on one particular screw out of several hundred of them existing in that equipment and the equipment was shipped. I am quite sure that, when the equipment is to be commissioned, the lone screw without locking device will come loose and spoil everything. This is how Murphy’s Law works.  Unfortunately, no one taught us this law in the college, instead of those hundreds of laws of Physics found useless in practical life.  

There are several variations and corollaries of Murphy’s law, all of them quite true. One variation says; If that guy has any way of making a mistake, he will. Another one says; If it can happen, it will happen. Two more variations are as follows. If there is a wrong way to do something, then someone will do it and if there's more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way. The worst is Drucker variation, which states; If one thing goes wrong, everything else will, and at the same time.

Modern manufacturing, particularly automotive engineering, has somehow overcome Murphy’s law with a new work philosophy known as “Zero defect”. In effect, this philosophy ensures that no defects are left over, which would show up eventually, according to Murphy’s law.  However, manufacturing might have managed to overcome Murphy ’s Law, what about us humans and things we do. There is no way, in which we can escape Murphy’s law and we shall continue to suffer under its burden.

30 September 2018

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