What I learned about Engineering from Elon Musk and the Fluffer Machine

During an investor conference call earlier this year, electric car company Tesla shared insights into assembly line optimizations. One stand out story involves the fluffer machine.

Edited Transcript of TSLA earnings conference call or presentation 2-May-18

“Like so we had fluffer bot, which was really an incredibly difficult machine to make work. Machines are not good at picking up pieces of fluff, okay. Human hands are way better at doing that. And so we had a super complicated machine using a vision system to try to put a piece of fluff on the battery pack. That same — and one of the questions asked was, “Do we actually need that?” So we tested a car with and without and found that there was no change in the noise volume in the cabin, so we actually had a part that was unnecessary that was — of course, the line kept breaking down because fluffer bot would frequently just fail to pick up the fluff or put it in like a random location. So that was one of the silliest things I found.”

So, they had this crazy complicated fluff machine. And a bunch of really smart people spent days trying to make it work. But no one, at least initially, questioned whether the machine was needed at all.

When the question was finally raised, the engineers challenged their assumptions, tested the theory. And they concluded the whole step of the process was unnecessary.

They scrapped the step, and the machine. Avoided getting stuck in the sunk cost fallacy. And moved on without regret.

The Lesson

Optimizing steps in your routine matters less than removing unecessary steps. Don’t waste your time over-optimizing activities you can stop doing altogether.

What I learned this week about productivity from Tesla, Amazon memos

Last week’s leaked Tesla memo is fascinating, and so is the annual Amazon.com letter to shareholders. The memos were seemingly penned by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, which gives us a rare view of how they lead their world-changing companies. Here I dive into why I love these memos.

#productivity #Tesla #Amazon #memo #meetings

Last week, while announcing plans to add shifts to reach 24 hour production, Elon dropped a few productivity tips. Read a copy of the whole memo here.

Excerpt:

Btw, here are a few productivity recommendations:

– Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.

– Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved.

Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time. (Emphasis mine)

– Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don’t want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla.

– Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the “chain of command”. Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere.

– A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is allow free flow of information between all levels. If, in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.

– In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a “company rule” is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert cartoon, then the rule should change.

Why I love this:

  • I think I have too many meetings
  • Sometimes I wish people would get up and leave meeting I have organized, because I mistakenly invited them. They have to stop what they’re doing to come to the meeting. Wasting more of their time adds insult to injury. They won’t leave because they think it’s rude.
  • I think some people go to every meeting they are invited to without questioning the value or the trade offs.
  • Sometimes I wish meetings were a lot smaller. I try to add up the salary of everyone in the room to estimate the cost and ROI of the meeting.
  • “Chain of command” sounds really antiquated. Of course this kind of red tape gets in the way of getting things done. As a manager I try to get out of the way as much as possible, let engineers talk to engineers. Very rarely have I heard anyone complain about chain of command.
  • Acronyms get really confusing. People who don’t know what they mean pretend like they do so they can avoid looking bad. I hate jargon.
  • Common sense is surprisingly not very common. Jeff Bezos, in last year’s letter, talks about process as proxies. Following rules reminds me of that. If you focus on following all the rules and nothing else, you are dead. You lose touch of what is actually important: the end product and customer; getting things done.

This year’s annual Amazon.com letter to shareholders touches on many topics including: deliberate practice, meetings, writing.

Here’s my favorite excerpt:

Perfect Handstands

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.” Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.

It’s called work for a reason! Achieving high standards requires putting in the work. You have to delay gratification to achieve big goals.

How Amazon does meetings:

Six-Page Narratives

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

In the handstand example, it’s pretty straightforward to recognize high standards. It wouldn’t be difficult to lay out in detail the requirements of a well-executed handstand, and then you’re either doing it or you’re not. The writing example is very different. The difference between a great memo and an average one is much squishier. It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo. Nevertheless, I find that much of the time, readers react to great memos very similarly. They know it when they see it. The standard is there, and it is real, even if it’s not easily describable.

Here’s what we’ve figured out. Often, when a memo isn’t great, it’s not the writer’s inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope: they mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more! They’re trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we’re not coaching them right. The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can’t be done in a day or two. The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope – that a great memo probably should take a week or more.

[…]

(As a side note, by tradition at Amazon, authors’ names never appear on the memos – the memo is from the whole team.)

This is why I love this section:

  • I think careful preparation for meetings also reduces the number of meetings.
  • And it eliminates agenda-less meetings. The memo is the agenda.
  • Preparing a written memo for every meeting allows the best ideas to emerge.
  • The way Amazon has implemented this, carefully thought out ideas can prevail over the loudest ideas.
  • A well-written memo can say A LOT with few words. Maybe even more effective than speaking in some cases.

Thanks for reading! If you like this please consider subscribing. I really appreciate all of my subscribers!