If I Could See It, I Could Fix It

Posted by bob on October 17, 2020

In An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems, Chapter 12 explains a wonderful statement, “If I Could See It, I Could Fix It.” I recently experienced a frustrating lesson of a corollary to “If I Could See It, I Could Fix It.”

I needed to paint a wood fence. I had purchased some solid stain that matched the previous color. In digging through some old paint supplies, I realized that I had a partial can of that stain from a previous year’s effort. We had switched at that time from a bright red color to a more muted brown that nonetheless had some slightly reddish coloring that worked well with an adjacent brick wall. The can of old paint had the correct (new) color information on a nice printed label that our local hardware store had applied to the lid of the paint can.

I opened and stirred that old can of paint first. The result seemed more red than brown in color. Then again, the afternoon sun was directly bathing the whole area as part of a wonderful fall afternoon. After applying some protective tape and paper to nearby structures, I got busy with the paint sprayer. Wow, that color really looked red. “It must look redder when wet, and then fade towards the brown as it dries,” I told myself. I knew that I had a lot of fence to paint, so I pressed onward, determined to finish at least one side of the fence that day.

As I finished that first can of paint, I stepped back and lifted my eye protection. With a sinking feeling, I realized that I had just painted several sections of fence with the wrong color. The first section was already drying, and was not getting any less red. But @#%, how did such a simple thing go wrong? I checked the label again, and it clearly had the correct marking for the brown paint. Then, it hit me. I experienced that thing that Bob Pease used to call, “the sudden cessation of stupidity.” The lid on a paint can is removable. Apparently, the lid from a previous can of brown color stain had accidentally been placed onto a can of the older red color stain. The label was correct, but the lid was on the wrong can. I had refused to believe the clear evidence of my eyes when I first began stirring that can.

Yes, if I could see it, I could fix it; but I needed to let my brain accept what I was seeing.

Switching to the new cans with the correct brown color I was able to cover up my mistake reasonably quickly, but I had added a lot of unnecessary work to that day. At least the weather was very nice.

As I thought about this experience, I remembered a similar tale from a factory visit many years before. We were touring a third-party factory and asking lots of questions to assure ourselves that they could deliver our product with the quality we required. The factory engineer showed us how each reel of surface-mount components was labelled with an in-house bar code. The pick-and-place machines would read that bar code label and use the programming to know which locations on the PCB were to be loaded with that component.

I asked the engineer how they knew that the bar code label matched the correct component. My thought was that the incoming materials-handling people might match up their internal description to the vendor marking on the reel. Or maybe they had a second person do a validation—reading the bar code and comparing the description that produced to an independent Bill of Materials.

“No, nothing like that,” the engineer said. “The pick-and-place just reads the bar code label. That’s how we know…Oh…oh; uh-oh!” The look on that engineer’s face likely matched my face when I realized that the label on a removable paint can lid was no guarantee of what was in that can.

When you are collecting information on a problem, be sure that you open your thinking to possible sources of bad information or bad understanding. Make sure that you listen to the nagging voice in your head that says, “Gee, that doesn’t seem right.” You have to see the problem with your eyes and your brain; and make sure the facts fit together.

I often write about mistakes we make when fixing a problem. I needed to help protect the wood in that fence, but I had picked up the wrong color material. My fence painting misadventure was easy to fix, but not every mistake is as simple as painting over something a second time. I have certainly made more costly mistakes, but I hope this story could help you avoid a mistake in the future.