An Unexpected Cold Shower

Source: PA Archives

Martin Fairbank
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You have probably all had this experience at some time. I got up one morning for my morning shower, and the water turned cold on me!

The primary cause was obvious – I was the last of our family to get up that morning and the others had used up all the hot water. I dismissed the event as an aberration, but over the course of the next few weeks, it happened again quite a few times.

Troubleshooting process problems with no obvious pattern can be frustrating. Some people jump to solution mode, which can end up with an expensive solution or even an expensive non-solution. In this case, for example, I could have gone out and bought a larger hot water tank, but I wasn't sure it would solve the problem. Understanding the pattern of a recurrent problem is important, because it allows us to pinpoint the cause or causes.

After analysing the data for a few weeks, a pattern began to emerge, although it was not perfect. The clues: it only started when school began in September for my two teenage sons. And it happened only on certain weekdays when both of them had to get to school early. On other days, our wake-up times were more spread out, allowing the hot water tank to recharge itself. Cold showers only happened when the hot water demand was high for an extended period (e.g. four consecutive users).

After brainstorming possible solutions, I came up with several possible ways to mitigate the problem. Like many business options, they could be classified as a) behavioural, b) capital, or c) technology solutions.

Behavioural solutions are always the most difficult to implement, because they require buy-in and commitment by the users, and are not always sustained. It is difficult to persuade teenagers to take shorter showers, for example.

The capital solution would be to buy a larger hot water tank. This would have no payback beyond customer satisfaction, and it might even encourage longer showers, resulting in an increase in operating costs!

The technology route to solving the problem won out in the end. I tried increasing the temperature of the hot water in the tank, but the difference was too small to be a success. After a bit of research, I decided to install a low-flow showerhead, which uses less water and therefore saves money. The users complained at first, like anyone that prefers the status quo, but they soon grew accustomed to it.

This simple story illustrates the importance of approaching any process troubleshooting problem with a structured approach. Define the problem, and analyze the data until you understand the root cause clearly. Some experimentation may be required to pin down the root cause. Once the problem is well understood, you can brainstorm possible options and try some of them out before choosing and implementing the best solution.

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

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