Think Inside the Box, Part I

“Thump … thumpity … thump.” The sound coming from my new neighbor’s garage at eleven o’clock at night was making it harder and harder for me to concentrate on the spreadsheets that covered my kitchen table. “Thump … thumpity … thump.” The distraction was just as well, for the spreadsheets didn’t paint a very pretty picture. Downright depressing, actually. Even more depressing was the terse, handwritten note I had received earlier that day from my bookstore’s landlord.

I took it from my pocket and read it for maybe the tenth time: “No check again this month. Will you be continuing in this location? Please advise.” Most depressing of all, however, was what I’d had to tell my oldest daughter just a few minutes before. She had been accepted to one of the top private colleges in the country – the one she’s had her heart set on going to since junior high school. But being a single dad and trying to keep a failing business afloat had put quite a strain on our finances, so I had to tell her it looked like she would have to attend a less expensive public college. She tried so hard not to let it show, but her disappointment was clear.

Clearly, I needed ideas for turning around my business, and I needed them fast. “Thump … thumpity … thump.” Ideas. Yes, I needed ideas. But where would they come from? I had already tried everything I knew. I needed new ideas – new ways of thinking and looking at things. I had known that for some time now, yet I kept coming up blank. “Think outside the box,” I reminded myself. But inside and outside, the cupboard seemed bare.

My inability to come up with ideas was making me more and more pessimistic. And my pessimism seemed to be preventing me from coming up with any ideas at all. It was a vicious circle that seemed impossible to get out of. Maybe if I just … “Thump … thumpity … THUMP!” That did it! It was time to introduce myself to my new neighbor and inform him that the rules of good neighborship do not include making a racket at a time when most good people – if their business isn’t going down the tubes – are already in bed.

He opened the side door of his garage with an outstretched hand and an apologetic grin that made it difficult for me to keep my anger stoked to full boil. “I’m so sorry,” he began. “Was all that noise keeping you up? I’m Tom – Tom Stevens. I had an idea, you see, and I just had to put together a rough model to see if it would work.” I looked around his garage. Although it could have held two cars, there was neither a car nor anything even vaguely automotive in sight.

Instead, all available space was taken up by a hodgepodge of tables and shelves that held various indescribable mechanisms of all shapes and sizes. Each one seemed to be in a different stage of being assembled or taken apart. It was hard to tell which. “Well, I live next door,” I announced. “And it’s impossible for me to …” “Sorry,” Tom interrupted. “I’m going to have to ask you not to use that word in my workshop.” “What word?” I asked, wondering what kind of a crank I had for a neighbor. “The ‘i’ word that means something isn’t possible.

I learned a long time ago that using words like that and talking about what can’t be done only eliminates possibilities that might hold valuable solutions. In this room, there is only what is possible.” “I see,” I said, although I didn’t really. Then, changing the subject, I added, “I heard you’re an inventor. Are you inventing something?” Tom laughed good-naturedly. “Well, I suppose you could call me an inventor.

But, unfortunately, most people think of an inventor as an inveterate tinkerer who’s a few wires short of a complete circuit, if you know what I mean. A mad scientist fixated on some idea he thinks will change the world, but will more than likely go up in a puff of smoke – both literally as well as figuratively. So, instead, I prefer to think of myself as …” And here, he paused somewhat dramatically before saying, “… a ‘problem solver.'” “And what types of problems do you solve?” “Well, take this one here, for example,” he said, picking up a metal tank the size of a large suitcase.

It had a large hole cut out of the top, a drain plug at the bottom, and what seemed to be a small microphone with a wire coming out of it attached underneath. “A company I work with has a factory that uses an extremely caustic acid in their manufacturing process. They need to know when the tank that supplies this acid is almost empty. They’ve tried putting every kind of measuring device known to man in the tank, but the acid and its fumes make all of them inoperable in a short time.

So, they brought the problem to me.” “What did you do?” “Well, the first thing I did was define the problem.” “Define the problem? Isn’t the problem perfectly obvious?” “No, it’s not obvious at all. And that’s what’s wrong with the way most people go about solving problems: They’re not clear on what the problem really is. “For example, the people at this factory thought the problem was to design a device that could measure the amount of acid left in the tank and withstand the highly corrosive environment.

So, they kept failing. But in talking to them, I defined the problem slightly differently. I asked: ‘How can the tank tell us when it’s almost empty?’ And that’s a much easier problem to solve.” “Sure,” I said. “All you need to do is design a talking tank.” “Yes, exactly,” he continued, unfazed by my sarcasm. “In that case, we don’t need a measuring device that is vulnerable to the highly caustic environment.

All we need is some hollow, acid-resistant steel balls that have a lower specific gravity than that of the acid.” “So they would float,” I ventured, recalling my sixth-grade science lessons. “Yes, exactly, so they would float – until the tank is almost out of acid. Then, they’ll roll around the bottom of the tank and make what would technically be called ‘racket.’ And that’s how the tank ‘tells’ us that it’s empty.” He then pulled out the stopper on his model tank. The water quickly drained into a pan and the little balls began rolling around.

The sound was picked up by the microphone and amplified over a nearby speaker, making the ‘thump … thumpity … thump’ sound that had gotten my attention earlier. “As you can see – I mean, as you can hear – I’ve used a microphone and speaker to capture, amplify, and convey the sound. This way, you don’t need to have someone sitting by the tank all day listening for the balls to begin rattling around. The sound can be conveyed to any office or to the factory’s control center.

If you wanted to get a little more sophisticated, it would be simple enough to rig the sound to trigger another device, such as an alert on the foreman’s pager.” “Wow!” I said. “How do you come up with ideas like that?” “It’s simple,” he replied. “You just define the problem correctly. Often, that gives you the answer right there. If not, I very systematically go about finding the solution.” “A system, huh? I always thought problem solving was unsystematic – freeform, outside the box, brainstorming, or whatever.” “Well, I think that’s another thing that’s wrong with the way most people go about solving problems. It’s very hit or miss.

And by trying to think ‘outside the box,’ you give yourself an endless amount of space that you have to search through for the idea or answer. You’re overwhelmed right from the get-go. “Instead, I prefer to think inside the box – 15 specific, pre-defined boxes that I’ve come up with, to be exact. ‘Thought starters,’ you might call them, that get you looking for solutions in ways and in places you might not otherwise think of. “To solve this problem, I looked in the first box – the one I call Add a New Dimension.

And in engineering, one of the ways you can add a new dimension is to add something you can see, hear, feel, taste, or smell. “I could have used an optical system. For example, I might have tried to color the acid and make one side of the tank transparent in order to see when the acid was about to run out. However, I wasn’t sure acid would hold coloring, and I wasn’t sure the acid wouldn’t dissolve any transparent material I could come up with.

That’s why I went with something you can hear – the hollow steel balls that make a sound when there is no longer enough acid to keep them afloat.” “That’s pretty neat,” I replied. “I can see where that kind of ‘inside the box’ thinking would work for mechanical stuff. But is there any chance it could be used for non-mechanical problems?” “Absolutely,” Tom replied. (To be continued …)