One Project, Four Lessons on Quality

Posted on August 8, 2012

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Several months ago, I finished built-in shelving around the fireplace in my house. The project was a joint effort. Once the rough dimensions were set, my father-in-law built and installed; I did the demo, prep and finishing.

The project turned out fine. To the average visitor, it looks great. To an aesthete, it is rough but gets a pass. During the project, I learned a few important lessons about quality worth sharing. 

First lesson: it is important to share the same definitions and expectations. My tolerance for gaps, alignment and mistakes are pretty low and I have high expectations for execution and design. I am particular with things in my house, especially permanent things I am going to look at every day. I can be a perfectionist. I wanted the highest quality select wood for the verticals and shelves. I wanted nice trim and a craft in the components. Honestly, my expectations of quality and craftsmanship are hard to match; I cannot meet my own standards most of the time. So I was set up for disappointment from the get-go.

Due to a shortage of time and funds, and an intense desire by my wife to complete the project, my father-in-law bought the wood and got started building immediately. As beggars cannot be choosers, I had no say in the wood or detailing. I had to get over it and just be grateful for the free materials and labor provided. This was another important lesson:  without the required time or budget, I had to bend my quality wish list to the reality of a needs list.   For the most part, I suppressed my disappointment and adjusted my standards. It was difficult. I was starting to wish my clients could live through this analogy with me before our next healthcare project.  It was the classic Cadillac-taste-with-a-Chevy-budget scenario.

Third lesson:  you can only guarantee the part you control. As part of my compromise, I told myself I could at least excel at the parts of the project I executed myself.  I bought the caulk, patch, primer, paint and the brushes and tools required to do the finishing. I knew each nick, dent, gouge, check, split, knot and fastener would be made invisible to the best of my ability. I knew each plane would be mechanically sanded with a rough grit, and hand-sanded with a fine grit. I knew each surface would receive two coats of primer, and each surface would receive two coats of finish paint with consistent weight, stroke direction and uniform drying, no globs.

One of my close architect friends is fond of saying about a particular building: ‘they put lipstick on a pig’, meaning a lot of resources were wasted trying to cover up what is a fundamentally flawed building. Architects sometimes believe they can design their way out of trouble in the field. And sometimes, it is possible. However, that notion produced lesson number four:  no finishing effort (patching, sanding, painting) can compensate for poor material selection.  The shelves were a glossy off-white, but reminded me of the ‘good from afar, but far from good’ tag another friend uses to describe anything that, upon closer inspection, loses its luster.

My father-in-law loves projects; he is good at getting things done. I like projects, but do not engage unless I can get things done my way—a fine distinction, yet one that bears a great deal on quality and expectations. These were great lessons for any project, and particularly reminded me of healthcare project discussions I have had in the past with clients. Sometimes it takes a very personal experience to understand some universal truths.

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