The Case of the Missing Tee Piece

August 29, 2011

In the 80's, I worked for a company that imported electronic components into the UK. We won a large contract to supply expensive, hush-hush cable trunking to an installation contractor for the military.

The trunking was made of unobtanium. It had spring-finger shielding to prevent signals from leaking out and to shield the signals from outside influences and junctions, particularly with the tee pieces, which were very expensive. Some were worth several months of my salary. In the time before the Berlin Wall fell, it was not unusual to see this level of investment in military technology.

As we neared completion, our buyer complained that he was missing a single tee piece. We went through all the usual checks. We investigated every possibility and came to the conclusion that it had been shipped, and the requisite number of boxes had been signed for. The buyer was getting very agitated, since he couldn't complete his part of the contract -- he was probably running into a potential penalty-payment situation.

I resisted his threats of litigation and claims on the loss of huge sums of money. We decided to let him rant for a while, and then said calmly: "We won't make any progress arguing, so let's start at the beginning when the boxes arrived at your building."

We took it step by step. Did the pieces come to your receiving dock? Yes, was the response. Were they checked in and ticked off? Not by anybody in particular. I countered with a signed copy of the shipping note and said it had to be on their premises.

He replied, "What are we going to do? I can't complete the contract with the military until you source a new tee piece, and we won't pay any outstanding invoices until you do."

Since this bickering was taking a long time, and the hold-up had dire implications for our cashflow, I asked if he really had checked everywhere. "I have," he insisted, "but it's chaos in our receiving area since we're in the middle of an expansion."

I gently asked him to go to the receiving area and ask the foreman of the construction crew where they ate their lunch and go look there. "Why on earth would I do that?" he asked.

"Just go ask the guy, then call me back," I said.

Ten minutes later, I had an absolutely delighted buyer on the phone. He said he found the crate. Sure enough, it was being used as a seat by the construction guys when they ate their lunch. "How did you know to look there?" he asked.

I told him the tee piece was shipped in a small wooden crate about 18 inches square. I explained that when I worked one summer on a building site, we always borrowed handy little crates to sit on when we ate lunch. We didn't know or care what was in the crates -- we just knew they were comfortable.

This entry was submitted by Nic Houslip and edited by Rob Spiegel.

Tell us your experience in solving a knotty engineering problem. Send your stories to Rob Spiegel for Sherlock Ohms.

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