If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible, then unconventional thinking is necessary

Monday, June 17th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson Musk calculated that on a good day he made a hundred command decisions as he walked the floor of his Tesla factory, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

“At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we’re going to alter them later,” he said. “But if I don’t make decisions, we die.”

One day Lars Moravy, a valued top executive, was working at Tesla’s executive headquarters a few miles away in Palo Alto. He got an urgent call from Omead Afshar asking him to come to the factory. There he found Musk sitting cross-legged underneath the elevated conveyor moving car bodies down the line. Again he was struck by the number of bolts that had been specified. “Why are there six here?” he asked, pointing.

“To make it stable in a crash,” Moravy replied.

“No, the main crash load would come through this rail,” Musk explained. He had visualized where all the pressure points would be and started rattling off the tolerance numbers at each spot. Moravy sent it back to the engineers to be redesigned and tested.

At another of the stations, the partially completed auto bodies were bolted to a skid that moved them through the final assembly process. The robotic arms tightening the bolts were, Musk thought, moving too slowly. “Even I could do it faster,” he said. He told the workers to see what the settings were for the bolt drivers. But nobody knew how to open the control console. “Okay,” he said, “I’m just going to just stand here until we find someone who can bring up that console.” Finally a technician was found who knew how to access the robot’s controls. Musk discovered that the robot was set to 20 percent of its maximum speed and that the default settings instructed the arm to turn the bolt backward twice before spinning it forward to tighten. “Factory settings are always idiotic,” he said. So he quickly rewrote the code to delete the backward turns. Then he set the speed to 100 percent capacity. That started to strip the threads, so he dialed it back to 70 percent. It worked fine and cut the time it took to bolt the cars to the skids by more than half.

One part of the painting process, an electrocoat bath, involved dipping the shell of the car into a tank. Areas of the car shell have small holes so that the cavities will drain after the dipping. These holes are then plugged with patches made of synthetic rubber, known as butyl patches. “Why are we applying these?” Musk asked one of the line managers, who replied that it had been specified by the vehicle structures department. So Musk summoned the head of that department. “What the hell are these for?” he demanded. “They’re slowing the whole damn line.” He was told that in a flood, if the water is higher than the floorboards, the butyl patches help prevent the floor from getting too wet. “That’s insane,” Musk responded. “Once in ten years there will be such a flood. When it happens, the floor mats can get wet.” The patches were deleted.

The production lines often halted when safety sensors were triggered. Musk decided they were too sensitive, tripping when there was no real problem. He tested some of them to see if something small like a piece of paper falling past the sensor could trigger a stoppage. This led to a crusade to weed out sensors in both Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets. “Unless a sensor is absolutely needed to start an engine or safely stop an engine before it explodes, it must be deleted,” he wrote in an email to SpaceX engineers. “Going forward, anyone who puts a sensor (or anything) on the engine that isn’t obviously critical will be asked to leave.”


Near the end of the final assembly line were robotic arms trying to adjust the little seals around the windows. They were having a hard time. One day, after standing silently in front of the balky robotics for a few minutes, Musk tried doing the task with his own hands. It was easy for a human. He issued an order, similar to the one he had given in Nevada. “You have seventy-two hours to remove every unnecessary machine,” he declared.

The robot removal started grimly. People had a lot vested in the machines. But then it became like a game. Musk started walking down the conveyor line, wielding a can of orange spray paint. “Go or stay?” he would ask Nick Kalayjian, his vice president for engineering, or others. If the answer was “go,” the piece would be marked with an orange X, and workers would tear it off the line. “Soon he was laughing, like with childlike humor,” Kalayjian says.


“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he tweeted. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

After the de-automation and other improvements, the juiced-up Fremont plant was churning out thirty-five hundred Model 3 sedans per week by late May 2018.


At a meeting at the Fremont factory on May 22, he recounted a story about World War II. When the government needed to rush the making of bombers, it set up production lines in the parking lots of the aerospace companies in California.


There was a provision in the Fremont zoning code for something called “a temporary vehicle repair facility.” It was intended to allow gas stations to set up tents where they could change tires or mufflers. But the regulations did not specify a maximum size. “Get one of those permits and start building a huge tent,” he told Guillen. “We’ll have to pay a fine later.”

That afternoon, Tesla workers began clearing away the rubble that covered an old parking lot behind the factory. There was not time to pave over the cracked concrete, so they simply paved a long strip and began erecting a tent around it.


In two weeks, they were able to complete a tented facility that was 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, big enough to accommodate a makeshift assembly line. Instead of robots, there were humans at each station.

One problem was that they did not have a conveyor belt to move the unfinished cars through the tent. All they had was an old system for moving parts, but it was not powerful enough to move car bodies. “So we put it on a slight slope, and gravity meant it had enough power to move the cars at the right speed,” Musk says.


“If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible,” Musk told him, “then unconventional thinking is necessary.”


June 30, the deadline Musk had promised for reaching the goal of five thousand cars per week, was a Saturday, and when Musk woke up on the conference room couch that morning and looked at the monitors, he realized they would succeed. He worked for a few hours on the paint line, then rushed from the factory, still wearing protective sleeves, to his airplane to make it to Spain in time to be the best man at Kimbal’s wedding in a medieval Catalonian village.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Elon Musk Reveals There Were Two Failed Assassination Attempts Against Him

    “We [Tesla] actually did have two homicidal maniacs in the last roughly seven months, come to aspirationally try to kill me and a bunch of other people, so it’s not just me, and there wasn’t an actual issue that they articulated — they were just, you know, in the homicidal maniac career.”

    “I will endeavor to stay alive,” he added.


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