Step one should be to question the requirements

Monday, June 10th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonReaching five thousand cars per week would be a huge challenge for Tesla, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

By the end of 2017, Tesla was making cars at only half that rate. Musk decided he had to move himself, literally, to the factory floors and lead an all-in surge. It was a tactic — personally surging into the breach 24/7 with an all-hands-on-deck cadre of fellow fanatics — that came to define the maniacal intensity that he demanded at his companies.

He began with the Gigafactory in Nevada, where Tesla made batteries. The person who designed the line there told Musk that making five thousand battery packs a week was insane. At most they could make eighteen hundred. “If you’re right, Tesla is dead,” Musk told him. “We either have five thousand cars a week or we can’t cover our costs.” Building more lines would take another year, the executive said. Musk moved him out and brought in a new captain, Brian Dow, who had the gung-ho mentality Musk liked.


At one point Musk noticed that the assembly line was being slowed at a station where strips of fiberglass were glued to the battery packs by an expensive but slow robot. The robot’s suction cups kept dropping the strip and it applied too much glue. “I realized that the first error was trying to automate the process, which was my fault because I pushed for a lot of automation,” he says.

After much frustration, Musk finally asked a basic question: “What the hell are these strips for?” He was trying to visualize why fiberglass pieces were needed between the battery and the floor pan. The engineering team told him that it had been specified by the noise reduction team to cut down on vibration. So he called the noise reduction team, which told him that the specification came from the engineering team to reduce the risk of fire. “It was like being in a Dilbert cartoon,” Musk says. So he ordered them to record the sound inside a car without the fiberglass and then with the fiberglass. “See if you can tell the difference,” he told them. They couldn’t.

“Step one should be to question the requirements,” he says. “Make them less wrong and dumb, because all requirements are somewhat wrong and dumb. And then delete, delete, delete.”

The same approach worked even on the smallest details. For example, when the battery packs were completed in Nevada, little plastic caps were put on the prongs that would plug it into the car. When the battery got to the Fremont car-assembly factory, the plastic caps were removed and discarded. Sometimes, they would run out of caps in Nevada and have to hold up shipment of the batteries. When Musk asked why the caps existed, he was told they had been specified to make sure the pins did not get bent. “Who specified that requirement?” he asked. The factory team scrambled to find out, but they weren’t able to come up with a name. “So delete them,” Musk said. They did, and it turned out they never had a problem with bent pins.


At 10 p.m. one Saturday, he became angry about a robotic arm that installed a cooling tube into a battery. The robot’s alignment was off, which was holding up the process. A young manufacturing engineer named Gage Coffin was summoned. He was excited about the chance to meet Musk. He had been working for Tesla for two years and had spent the previous eleven months living out of a suitcase and working seven days a week at the factory. It was his first full-time job, and he loved it. When he arrived, Musk barked, “Hey, this doesn’t line up. Did you do this?” Coffin responded haltingly by asking Musk what he was referring to. The coding? The design? The tooling? Musk kept asking, “Did you fucking do this?” Coffin, flummoxed and frightened, kept fumbling to figure out the question. That made Musk even more combative. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “Get the hell out and don’t come back.” His project manager pulled him aside a few minutes later and told him that Musk had ordered him fired. He received his termination papers that Monday. “My manager was fired a week after me, and his manager the week after that,” Coffin says. “At least Elon knew their names.”

“When Elon gets upset, he lashes out, often at junior people,” says Jon McNeill. “Gage’s story was fairly typical of his behavior where he just couldn’t really process his frustration in a productive way.” JB Straubel, Musk’s kinder and gentler cofounder, cringed at Musk’s behavior. “In retrospect it may seem like great war stories,” he says, “but in the middle of it, it was absolutely horrific. He was making us fire people who had been personal friends for a very long time, which was super painful.”


One night, Musk was walking through the Nevada battery pack factory with his posse — Afshar, Antonio Gracias, and Tim Watkins — and they noticed a delay at a workstation where a robotic arm was sticking cells to a tube. The machine had a problem gripping the material and getting aligned. Watkins and Gracias went over to a table and tried to do the process by hand. They could do it more reliably. They called Musk over and calculated how many humans it would take to get rid of the machine. Workers were hired to replace the robot, and the assembly line moved more quickly.

Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster.


“We put a hole in the side of the building just to remove all that equipment,” Musk says.


Always wait until the end of designing a process — after you have questioned all the requirements and deleted unnecessary parts — before you introduce automation.

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