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Help! My car is allergic to vanilla ice cream; a study in problem solving – Part I

Family on a car journey

The following is a true story of a problem that could have created customer satisfaction issues for a major automobile manufacturer.  Instead it was solved rapidly and efficiently by gathering key data relevant to the problem. Can you figure out the most probable cause?

A complaint was received by a high ranking executive of a well known major automobile manufacturer:

“This is the second time I have written you, and I don’t blame you for not answering me, because I kind of sounded crazy, but it is a fact that wehave a tradition in our family of ice cream for dessert after dinner each night. But the kind of ice cream varies so every night, after we’ve eaten, the whole family votes on which kind of ice cream we should have and I drive down to the store to get it.

It’s also a fact that I recently purchased one of your new automobiles and since then my trips to the store have created a problem. You see, every time I buy vanilla ice cream, when I start back from the store my car won’t start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine. I want you to know I’m serious about this question, no matter how silly it sounds: ‘What is there about this car that makes it not start when I get vanilla ice cream, and easy to start whenever I get any other kind?”

The president of this auto manufacturer was understandably skeptical about the letter, but sent an engineer to check it out anyway. The latter was surprised to be greeted by a successful, obviously well-educated man in a fine neighborhood. He had arranged to meet the man just after dinner time, so the two hopped into the car and drove to the ice cream store. It was vanilla ice cream that night and, sure enough, after they came back to the car, it wouldn’t start.

Now the engineer, being a logical man, refused to believe that this man’s car was allergic to vanilla ice cream. He arranged, therefore, to continue his visits for as long as it took to solve the problem. And toward this end he began to take notes: he jotted down all sorts of data, time of day, type of gas used, time to drive back and forth, etc.

In a short time, he had a clue:  The answer was in the layout of the store. Why?

Help us solve the mystery!  Type your thoughts in the comments section below.  Next week in Part II of this blog series we will solve the alleged automotive allergic reaction to vanilla ice cream.

To Solve This Problem:

  • What questions would you ask?
  • What additional data would you need?
  • List possible causes.

(If you are familiar with this case please, keep this to yourself for now)


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