Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
Problem Solving with Well-Informed Curiosity

Problem Solving with Well-Informed Curiosity

problem-solving-with-well-informed-curiosity- image0A speaker for a meeting where I was in attendance told the story of Charles Kettering, who was the research chief at General Motors many years ago. Kettering was an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur type. For example, he developed the starter, a huge improvement in automobile technology. (I remember an old Farmall tractor we had when I was a boy that had to be hand cranked. My Dad had to do it because it was a great way to get hurt and it took muscle to crank an engine to life.) Kettering practiced what he called "intelligent ignorance" which was a blend of well-informed curiosity and a persistent willingness to try new ideas. His point was to never be afraid to ask why or how. It is often pride that keeps us from asking questions everyone else in the room is dying to ask. We learn by asking questions.

Anyway, one of the problems he tackled was the hand painting of automobiles — a painstakingly slow process that took up to 37 days to complete. The paint had to dry and many coats had to be applied. He let folks know cars needed to be painted quicker. The “paint” people came back and said it could be done in 30 days (and were proud of themselves for this proposed savings in time.) Kettering, then in his mid-40s, was not pleased. "An hour would be more like it," he quipped.

Kettering never wanted problems improved; he wanted them solved. One day, in New York browsing in stores on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, he viewed a wooden pin tray finished with a lacquer in a jewelry store. He bought the tray, tracked the maker of the lacquer to a backyard garage in New Jersey. He bought some lacquer, too. Working with Du Pont, he changed the consistency of the lacquer and added the color of existing paints to produce paint thin enough to spray on automobiles. The paint dried glossy and weather-resistant — all in a matter of minutes.
To illustrate his improvement, he invited one of the paint experts to lunch, talked paint and then walked the man to the GM parking lot, where the guest said he could not find his car. Kettering pointed to a vehicle and asked, "Isn't that yours?" "It looks like mine," the paint man replied, "but my car isn't that color." Kettering said, "It is now." Kettering had the guy’s car painted during lunch to prove his point.

It is surprising how we can do things in new ways when we try, and we should always be open to new ideas that save time and money while improving service. For example, we allow 45 days to post charges after a patient is seen. Seems like it should be 4 to 5 days. If you have an idea on how to accomplish this, come see me.