Me, My Car, and a Thump

I have a neat story to tell about something that happened last week and how you can apply problem-solving skills to almost anything in life. Actually this example will show what happens when you don't apply these skills properly.


Those who know me know I have a nice sports car. It sits low to the ground and doesn't have a lot of clearance. A couple weeks ago, I went over an abnormally large speed bump a bit too fast and it scraped the bottom of my car. My family and I didn't think much of it. A few days later, something unusual happened - I let my husband drive my car. Now, my family is unique in that my career has mainly been in software testing and my husband is a software developer. So we have an understanding that we approach things differently. When my husband came home after driving my car, I was shocked at what he told me. He noticed a noise (a thump) coming from the floorboard underneath the driver's feet. He was able to describe the steps to reproduce the problem and isolated it down to just a few key actions. I was so proud of him! My software developer was doing a tester's job of isolating and reproducing an anomaly. When you drive over 40 mph, as the steering wheel moves from being straight and centered to the right for a right turn, there is a thump you can hear that seems to be coming from under the floor of the car. Only one thump and only going from center to right. If the steering wheel is going from somewhat right to further right, no thump. If it is going from center to left, no thump. The next day I drove my car and sure enough I noticed the exact same thing. We speculated (or should I say we prematurely thought about the root cause) that going over that speed bump too fast damaged something underneath my car. That premature root cause was our first mistake. But going with that assumption, we called a relative who used to be a mechanic and explained the symptoms to him. He speculated further that it could be a problem with the steering. So we made an appointment with the car dealership and for the next few days until the appointment, I was nervous every time I drove my car. Would the steering go out and when? Is it the steering or something worse?


When we dropped off the car for the appointment, it cost $150 for them to just take a look at it. They called later that day to tell us what they found. First the women on the phone said "it's not what you expect". What do you think it was? The mechanic put the car on the lift and didn't find any damage underneath it, so he was stumped. He decided to take it for a ride. He did all the steps and reproduced the thump, so he got another mechanic to lie down on the floor in the back (I did mention that this is a sports car, right?) and sure enough, as they drove around they both heard the thump. As the back seat mechanic investigated the area where the noise was coming from, he found the problem.


It was a flashlight. Yes, for emergencies, I have a flashlight securely located under my driver's seat, or apparently not so securely now. When I turn right it rolls across the floor and hits something hard in the right side of my driver's seat. Rolling to the left, it hits something soft and doesn't make a noise. It only rolls when you go over 40 mph and when you turn sharp enough to the right. So after $150, two mechanics, and a day without my car, they were able to discover my flashlight! And we've been laughing about that for the past week!


So what's the moral of the story? Maybe there are a few. Can you think of others?

  • Sometimes life is chaotic and things are overlooked, just deal with it and move on
  • Don't jump to conclusions on what is causing a problem until you do a thorough investigation
  • Be careful not to include erroneous data (the speed bump had nothing to do with it!) into your investigation
  • Including others to help determine the problem when the cause is misrepresented only hinders your ability to get to the right solution (I didn't need to be worried about my steering)
  • Research all possible outcomes before escalating an issue (why didn't we think to look under the seat?)
  • And finally, never let a software developer do a tester's job. :-)