Quality is Over-Rated (often)

I want to speak up for the half-assed, the slap-dash and the shoddy.

Okay, I over-state my position a bit to be provocative, but only a bit: I really am going to argue that quality is often over-rated.

I have lived my 61 years (so far) with the attitude that doing it is more important than doing it perfectly and I am here today to recommend that approach. There are times and places for great stress on quality, but not every time and every place requires that philosophy.

Okay, it’s 6:40 PM. I’ll explain why that’s important at the end.

As I look around at how people function in this world, I just get the very strong feeling that too many people hold themselves back from doing lots of stuff they could do because of excessive emphasis on quality. The old saying is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Amen to that!

Let me give a few examples from my own life.

Example 1) My family and I have a cabin in Vermont that we designed and built ourselves, with our own hands. It is far from perfect. The floors are not level, the mice have found ways in, and the front door is still the temporary front door I threw together one cold night 23 years ago to keep the wind out so we could sleep. But our little cabin has stood these 23 years and given us enormous enjoyment and we’re proud of it. It’s pretty good-sized with kitchen, livingroom and bedroom, a nice high ceiling and big windows. It has no real foundation, however. It sits on pressure-treated wood beams that are not below the frost line. Why? Because if I’d set my standards to include going down at least 4 feet and pouring a cement footing the way you’re supposed to, I never would have built it. I didn’t have the money at that time for hiring a lot of professional labor and heavy equipment and I wasn’t sure this cabin thing was going to be a long-term episode in my life. So, I reasoned that the soil was very dense and if we dug as much as we could in a few weekends using hand tools and spread the load out over a large area with treated beams in trenches, the beams would support the cabin and it wouldn’t sink or heave much. Who says floor have to be perfectly level anyway? Ours aren’t, and that’s okay. We love our cabin and all the doors and windows still work even if the whole structure does rise and fall a bit with the coming and going of the frost. It’s true that if I had known it was going to last this long and be this good, I would have made it better. But, I really have no regrets.

Author's cabin in Vermont. 23 years old and counting on a shallow wood foundation.

Example 2) I stumbled into a home-based business. I love to sail and I love to go to the Caribbean and I wanted my own little boat there. So, I put a sail, leeboards and a rudder on an inflatable boat and made an inflatable sailboat. It worked great! Right there you have an example of “just doing it,” rather than worrying about “doing it right.” But there’s more to the story: I decided to try selling them. My son built me a basic website and I had a whopping 8 copies of my inflatable sailboat made for me by a company that makes canoe sail kits. Overnight, I was in the sailboat business. I kept overhead and expenses very low by doing everything myself – no employees, no consultants. I shot the pictures and videos, I expanded the website, I did the accounting and the taxes, I wrote the instructions and the advertising copy – it was an amateur job from A to Z. I have felt some social pressure to make my website look more professional, but I have steadfastly resisted. I go for the absolute best quality I can, within cost constraints, on the product’s design and construction, but why try to have a perfect-looking website? The product is important. The website is just a means to an end. I also strive to give outstanding customer service, because quality is very important there. But my packaging is often re-used boxes and my glossy brochures – well, there are no glossy brochures. I only got business cards last year for the first time. (And only then because they were free at Vista Print). So, I am not arguing against quality in all things, but I am saying some places it matters more and some places it matters less and don’t let obsession with quality get in the way where it is not of great importance. If I felt that my website had to be A1 professional looking I never would have been able to grow, because I was unwilling to risk capital on something like that. (Aside: I’ve actually had a lot of customers tell me that the home-spun nature of my website is good. They say a real person doing his own website and talking about his own products inspires more confidence than a glossy brochure by a faceless corporation ever would.)

The business has grown rapidly and it’s all I can do to keep up with the flood of orders. My little hobby sideline became a full-time job with commensurate net profit in just 7 years, with no significant financial risk and no money-losing start-up period. It was profitable from day one. Take a look: SailboatsToGo.com

Example 3) I used to be a journalist, long ago, far away. On one of my first articles I was really sweating the headline and I went to my editor for advice. I had half a dozen headline candidates to show him and started to tell him about various ideas and considerations for how to craft the final headline. He said to me: “It’s a mistake to spend a lot of time writing the perfect headline. Give it your best shot in the next 120 seconds and move on.” I was shocked but I quickly came to like that idea. Give it your best shot and move on.

Example 4) This is a counter example. My longest career was in low-income housing. I was a consultant to nonprofits, helping them build or renovate apartment buildings for low-income families. I did the financing and supervised the development team. In that business quality was sometimes under-emphasized, in the sense that there was a lot of pressure to under-budget the operating expenses and the construction cost in order to just get it done. Getting enough money to really do it right was very hard. But under-funded projects are penny-wise and pound foolish, because the most expensive projects in the long-run for society as a whole are the ones that get into trouble and have to be financially restructured and/or physically rebuilt due to unrealistically low operating budgets and/or cheap construction. So my message here is, when it comes to very big, very serious, very important things like multi-million-dollar housing projects affecting the quality of life for a whole neighborhood and dozens of families, half-assed is not appropriate. I became a staunch advocate for spending enough to do it right and then doing it right. If that meant we lose another year searching and pleading for more money to do it right, so be it.

Example 5) This article. I hope you have found this little essay at least amusing and perhaps thought-provoking. It’s now 7:15 and I’m going to end it within the next 5 minutes and allocate 5 or 10 minutes for polishing and publishing. Maybe if I spent half a day on it, or a whole day, I could have made it better. But, I don’t have a free half-day or whole day that I care to devote to this particular project. So, rather than not write it at all, I wrote it quickly; I spent about an hour from start to finish. I think it’s good enough.