Among my top five most despised activities is putting together those cheap rickety metal shelves that you can buy at pretty much any hardware store. You know the ones I’m talking about… dark gray, angle iron legs, flimsy shelves, hundreds of screws and nuts, and a few thin cross braces that kid you into thinking the contraption is actually strong and steady enough to hold something more than a few roles of toilet paper.
This past weekend I was lucky enough to go through that experience… twice.
My mother in-law is moving from the home she’s lived in for over thirty years to a new apartment. After innocently maligning her in past blog posts, I promised that I would be gentle this time, so you won’t hear anything more about her. As with most such relocation situations there is a huge amount of… stuff… that needs to be sorted. Stuff that has accumulated over thirty years, for which there is always some potential future use that never materializes but still deemed likely enough to prevent the stuff from being thrown out. This is why I prefer to limit the amount of storage capacity to prevent stored materials from expanding to fill existing over capacity.
So there I was early Saturday morning, happily filling up the rental SUV with various items to move to her new apartment, when I heard those dreaded words: “could you please (I’m pretty sure I heard the word “please”) add that one set of shelves from the basement?” So I trot down to the basement and find several of those evil metal shelves, all stacked with… well… 20 year old paint and oil, random dishes, and even a potty training seat complete with plastic fishes swimming around in some unknown liquid. All items obviously required by a senior citizen in her new apartment.
As it turns out those particular items were not going to be moved, but she insisted that she still needed the shelves. I put forth a feeble argument that if you build storage then “stuff will come” and be stored, whether it is truly needed or not. She didn’t buy it. So after moving the unwanted items to one of the other shelves, I spent the next hour removing screw after screw, shelf after shelf, and then lugging the pieces up to the truck. I briefly considered “accidentally” losing the can of screws and nuts, but decided that would create more hassle than it was worth.
Later that day, after driving across the state to her new apartment, my brother in-law and I labored to rebuild the shelves. Two tech geek guys skilled in all things mechanical and electrical, rebuilders of Porsche engines and experts with the most insane computer/audio/visual equipment, carefully assembling the shelves on its side. Counting holes to ensure consistent shelf separation, grateful for the alternating sequence of square and round holes obviously provided for just such a task. Then, after over an hour, our moment of triumph as we lift the shelves into an upright position.
Every shelf was at an angle. Of course our supportive wives and my mother in-law were there to ensure we noticed that minor flaw.
As it turned out the alternating square and round holes had another interesting characteristic: they didn’t exactly alternate. Occasionally there were two round holes in a row, sometimes two squares, with no discernable pattern. It took another half hour of repair work, but finally the shelf stood proudly in the basement of her new apartment. Waiting to hold… stuff.
There are several lessons from this experience. Yes, even some lessons for those readers who endured this long post in hopes of some tiny nugget just slightly related to lean manufacturing.
First, beware of lonely shelves. If you build them, stuff will come. They are horizontal surfaces yearning for predominantly useless knick-knacks to ensure that dust never settles on the floor. Conversely we have what is commonly (as of now) referred to as the Meyer Theorem: “You probably won’t miss stuff thrown out because you can’t find a place to store it.”
Second, measure twice and cut once. Or screw together once in this case. Somehow I’ve heard that before, but chose to forget it. Don’t assume what is apparently a poka yoke device or simple assembly aid, such as the sequence of round and square holes, is really an assembly aid.
And finally, if you are designing a product, don’t play with the minds of tech geeks by including an apparent assembly aid that isn’t really an assembly aid. Deep down I know those designers are somehow conspiring with my mother in-law.
She has that power, and they are laughing.