Perfect is too Good

Do you know the difference between 'perfect' and 'done'?

By Anthony Noel

It was with more than a little trepidation that I decided somebody had to speak up about the pitfalls of obsessive perfectionism in the world of custom woodworking.

After all, with magazines like this one (and others) regularly featuring the incredibly artistic, beautiful, inventive, painstaking work of our colleagues, it is only natural for many to believe that anything short of perfection isn't good enough when it comes to custom work. An admirable notion, to be sure.

But I beg to differ. I submit that, in at least nine out of 10 projects undertaken by the huge majority of custom shops reached by this and those other magazines, perfect is too good.

I can hear the cries of "Heretic!" and "Blasphemer!" building already. But right is right and trust me, I'm right on this one.

Last month, you will recall, we noted that a sure-fire way to separate valuable employees from those who are more of a drain on our businesses is by asking ourselves a simple question: "Are they into it?"

Now it is time to look at the other extreme.

One of my closest friends puts it this way: "If they are doing this work in a commercial setting because they are in love with watching the wood curl out of the plane, that's a problem."

He's right. Surely, the majority of us were drawn to woodworking by its more sublime qualities: The chance to work with our hands, a feeling we are helping to perpetuate a time-honored craft and, yes, the sheer joy of seeing the wood curl out of the plane.

But at some point, a woodworker with a commercial shop must make a decision: Am I in this for fun - or profit?

Ideally, the answer to that question - "for profit" - is voiced simultaneously with the decision to take the shop commercial. But all too often, the ideal is not the reality.

Fed by those glossy visions of museum-quality pieces, many woodworkers imagine their shops constantly turning out similar work. If they are paying attention, however, they soon notice that the market for such work is limited at best. The preponderance of work available to them is about solving a problem, not quenching a wealthy patron's artistic thirst.

Usually, the problem the shop is being asked to solve is phrased by the customer something like this: "What can you create for me that will look great and function in this specific way?"

Notice they are asking for "great," not "perfect."

So we innovate, we invent, we stretch our mental muscles and come up with a solution that's functional, easy on the eye, maybe even a little elegant. We win the job.

And then, too often, we head to the shop with our "perfectionist" hat on.

There is not one thing wrong with working diligently to produce functional, pretty-to-look-at work that fits perfectly in a larger decor scheme, or maybe just in a less prominent alcove.

There is plenty wrong, however, with not understanding the difference - and the hugely different impact on our businesses - between "done" and "perfect."

For starters, you cannot afford to do perfect work, and your customers can't afford to buy it. I don't care how much money they have.

Unless and until someone strolls into your shop with a signed, blank, CERTIFIED check and says, "Make me art, money is no object and you have total control over what it will look like," perfect should not even be on your radar screen.

The reasons are many. For starters, wood is an imperfect material. But that is stating the obvious. More compelling reasons include the need to make decent money, the pointlessness of wasting perfection on projects (or elements of a project) that do not require it, and perhaps most importantly, the need to HAVE FUN.

Yes, I remember saying that going commercial is really about deciding whether you are working wood for fun or profit. But nobody ever said we cannot have a little fun along the road to profitability, and nothing sucks the fun out of anything quite like the relentless pursuit of perfection - no matter what the folks at Lexus might have to say about it.

Unbelievable as it may seem, you are actually going to do better work if you remove the mind-bending pressure associated with doing perfect work.

As for making decent money, again, unless somebody handed you a blank check upon seeing your proposal and said, "It has to be perfect, and don't deliver it until it is," you as a manager must decide what constitutes "done," and be sure that you and your employees do not surpass it, which is not merely like throwing money away, it IS throwing money away.

Which brings us to the aforementioned pointlessness of wasting perfection where it is not being specified (to put it coldly in architectural terms). Would you rub out to a mirror finish the topcoat on the BACK of a raised-panel kitchen door? Use dovetail joints on plinth bases that are going to get covered with vinyl cove base?

Well, taking work beyond "done" is every bit as silly, counter-productive and unprofitable.

"But," you argue, "I'm trying to build a reputation." No, you're not. You are trying to dig yourself a hole, and you are doing a damned fine job of it. You just do not realize it.

You do not realize it because you are a woodworker or, put another way, your customer IS NOT. There is nothing wrong with holding yourself to a high standard. But when you are working to a standard that is higher than (a) your customer's or (b) you can afford, it's a problem.

Fortunately, however, you are a problem-solver, as we have already agreed. And you can solve this problem with just a few simple steps. First, establish the standard with your customer before the contract is signed. Second, develop a production plan that will guide you in meeting that standard as quickly and efficiently as possible and finally, when the standard is met, STOP WORKING!

For fledgling woodworkers, that last one is the real challenge. But knowing you need to do it is 'way more than half the battle.

Anthony Noel writes and works in New Bern, NC. Send him e-mail at anthonynoel@cox.net.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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