Elon Musk: 'I feel like I'm in a Dilbert cartoon quite frequently'

Last week a YouTube channel called the Everyday Astronaut released the first part of an interview with Elon Musk which took place at his Starbase launch site in Texas. I watched the clip over the weekend and found it really interesting. Despite his autism/Asperger’s and occasional awkwardness, Musk has become a pretty great storyteller. In the clip below he spends a lot of time talking about his five point process for making things work.

  1. Make your requirements less dumb: “Your requirements are definitely dumb. It does not matter who gave them to you. It’s particularly dangerous if a smart person gave you the requirements because you might not question them enough.” He later added, “Whatever requirement or constraint you have, it must come with a name not a department…that person who is putting forward the requirement or constraint, they must take responsibility for that requirement. Otherwise you could have a requirement that, basically, an intern two years ago randomly came up with
  2. Try very hard to delete the part or process: “If you’re not occasionally adding things back in, you’re not deleting enough.”
  3. Simplify or optimize: “It’s possibly the most common error of a smart engineer is to optimize a thing that should not exist.” He added, “You can’t tell a professor ‘your question is dumb’ you’ll get a bad grade. You have to answer the question. So everyone’s basically, without knowing it, they got like a mental straight-jacket on. They’ll work on optimizing the thing that should not exist.”
  4. Accelerate cycle time: “You’re moving too slowly. Go faster. But don’t go faster until you have worked on the other three things first.”
  5. Automate.

After spending quite a few minutes laying out these steps with various side-stories and examples, Musk demonstrates the one quality that makes him a lot more interesting to listen to than most people in his position. Instead of talking in generalities, he points to himself as an example of failure.

“Now I have personally made the mistake of going backwards on all five steps, multiple times,” he said. Specifically when working on the Model 3 for Tesla he added, “I automated, accelerated, simplified and then deleted.

“One example I’ve talked about before is there were these fiberglass mats atop the Model 3 battery pack that were in between the floor pan and the battery. And it was the one point choking the battery pack production line. I was basically living on the battery pack production line, trying to fix the line because it was choking the entire Model 3 production program.

“I tried to fix the automation, like, make the robot better, make it move faster, shorter path, increase the torque, delete the reverse 720 degrees on the bolt cause that’s unnecessary. Go forward fast, not at a 20% rate but at a 100% rate. And instead of spackling glue on the entire battery pack, just put little dabs of glue because the fiberglass mats are sandwiched between the battery pack and the floor pan anyways so all you need is something to hold it in place until you bolt the battery pack into the car.”

And after doing all of this work on automation and acceleration and simplifying Musk finally wondered what the purpose of the mats was in the first place.

“I asked the battery safety team…I said ‘Are they for fire protection?’ And they said ‘No, these are for noise and vibration.’ And I said, ‘But you’re the battery department.’ Then I asked the NVH, noise vibration harshness team ‘What’s it for?’ and they said fire safety.”

“So, literally, it was like being in a Dilbert cartoon, okay,” Musk said. He added, “Actually, I feel like I’m in a Dilbert cartoon quite frequently.”

The coda on this story is that having realized that the only purpose of the fiberglass mats was sound reduction, they put microphones in two cars, one with the mat and one without and found no one could tell the difference. So after all of that, they deleted the mats “and just bypassed this $2 million robot cell that was a complete pile of nonsense.”

Anyway, that’s just about 10-12 minutes of this much longer interview and this is only part one of three parts. He’s pretty energetic in part one but by the end of part two the heat and the late hour is clearly starting to get to him a bit. Still, if you have any interest in what Space X is working on right now in Texas this is an all-access tour narrated by Musk himself. It’s pretty remarkable that a guy with this much on the line and this many major projects underway still has a sense of humor about what he’s doing.