Sunday, November 08, 2015

quality school...

My wife and I have been undergoing a voluntary kitchen remodel over the last few months. It all started with planning, visits with architects, an engineer, and a kitchen designer. Six weeks ago the very serious work began with demolition of our existing kitchen while we were waiting for the kitchen cabinets to arrive, and as we were making necessary adjustments to plumbing and electrical.

We've been preparing meals in my office with a hotplate, toaster oven and crockpot, and doing dishes in the bathroom sink. So none of this has been easy.

This last week was a hard one, as we narrowed down choices of backsplash, and contended with a kitchen counter top that had the sink hole cut in the wrong place, and had to be redone.

This has been frustrating to me. As a craftsman, I attempt to uphold certain standards in my own work, and as a consumer of craftsmanship performed by others, I have been alerted to the amount of difficulty and cost that would be avoided if people paid greater attention to what they did, and if they were to have greater interest in craftsmanship as a way of life in pursuit of intrinsic values. I am not writing to place blame on those craftsmen with whom we have dealt. Our local electrician and local carpenter and local painters and plumber in our own small community have been great. But assumption in the world at the moment is that if the customer doesn't notice, then all things are great.

As a more egregious example, the installers came to put our new counter top in place. Without measuring, the installer took the stainless steel sink, traced around it and began cutting the sink base for it to fit.  Out of curiosity I walked outside with my tape measure and checked the distance from the sink hole cut in the counter top to the end where it would fit the wall, and determined that the sink would not fit without a near complete destruction of the sink base.  I stopped the installer, and asked, "don't you think you should measure before you cut?" And so after measuring, and checking and rechecking and calls to the fabrication plant, and the boss, we determined that the whole thing had to be done again. I was left with the notion that had I not interfered, the whole sink base would have been destroyed before the mistake was noticed and had I not been home, the counter top, would have been installed whether it was rightly done or not. There is a hurry and an impatience about how things are done, and there is a great need in the world at large for education in the application of mind that would lead to an overall honing of craftsmanship and its application. The cost of incompetence is enormous.

Earlier, when the cabinet installers were finishing their work, they asked us to go through and write a list of things that needed to be fixed. A person trained in craftsmanship, and experienced in the intrinsic rewards of craftsmanship and the application of hand and mind would not need a list, and the standards for completion would not be so limited by a customer's often low standards.

But why should industry pay for what the customer is unlikely to notice and call out? And why should industry pay for a higher level of craftsmanship when most customers are ill equipped to serve immediately as quality inspectors and may feel awkward about doing so? There are intrinsic values in doing a job well, and when workers are not granted those rewards and are not trained to receive those rewards, costly mistakes happen, and employee turnover can be disastrous. Imagine a situation in which craftsmanship is continuously discovered by a client, instead of reminders of inattention and lack.

This overall problem is not confined to kitchen cabinet installation. A good friend is facing cancer treatment starting on Monday. And the depth of engagement and delivery of service by specialists of all kinds, including in the medical profession, is affected by the power to observe critically, to think outside the box, and to uphold the kinds of intrinsic standards that a person learns effectively through the exercise of craftsmanship. I hope and pray that my friend's life is in good hands.

Several years ago I was approached by the county in which I live, concerning a building they owned and grant funding that might be available to start a vocational training program. From their end, they were trying to get money from the state and federal government. From my end, I had to ask, "trained to do what?"

If the idea is simply to teach a few kids to hammer nails, and go from that into employment as carpenters, that might be a good thing. But best would be an intensive program that would give students the tools to reach for quality in their own workmanship, and to apply hand and mind in ways unfamiliar to them, and to seek the rewards of craftsmanship, that can actually be applied to all fields of endeavor.

So what would a quality school be like? First, it would have inspirational teachers, willing to uphold high standards of workmanship. Secondly, it would introduce students to the intrinsic rewards of meeting high standards. Third, it would sell the concept, that attainment of quality is its own reward.

The idea is that craftsmanship and the application of craftsmanship is transforming in that it enhances one's ability to observe and make decisions based on both intrinsic and extrinsic values. And that the values learned through craftsmanship are universal in that those very same values apply to all human endeavors.

Make, fix, create, and assist others in learning likewise.


  1. well said!! in this time and age, there is a lot of "how much money can I make in the shortest amount of time possible" before people move on to the next project/job. We helped a relative remodel a house but whenever I pointed out mistakes and really sloppy work, the contractor would yell at us and refuse to fix it. He felt he (his crew) did a great job, what can we do.

  2. It can be awkward and put others in an embarrassing position when you point out their errors, particularly those things that should be obvious to them if they cared.

    Much of this has to do with the failure to educate all people in craftsmanship. Even those who do not work as craftsmen should at least become acquainted with standards of craftsmanship, how it is attained, and the dignity of it. Instead we have a society in which folks slide by. It's odd, that while educational policy makers are concerned with standards and standardization, throughout the rest of our culture and economy we are being forced to lower our standards. Someone tell me please, that these two are unrelated. It seems that by removing craftsmanship from schooling and making the standardized test the only means of assessment, we have lowered our cultural standards.

  3. Nothing's more frustrating to those of us promoting craftsmanship than craftsmen who don't care about their work! But what else can we expect after centuries of denigration of labor and putting craftspeople in financially vulnerable conditions?

  4. It seems like an impossible task. You can't make someone care about his or her work. If you uphold higher standards it comes across as elitism and criticism or you are regarded as rude and overly demanding. What I end up doing is letting them slip away and then trying to redo myself to bring things up to what I expect. For instance, the panel front on the dishwasher was not properly aligned, so after the installer left, I loosened the screws and adjusted it myself. If I had insisted he fix things to my standards, he would have hated me for it, and it would not have changed his behavior on the next job.

  5. Keep on preaching! I see the same attitude in food preparation and photography, two of my particular interests. Your attention to real standards needs to be seen by us all.

  6. Worth noting here that at one time one of the functions of unions, inherited from the medieval guilds, was to maintain high standards of workmanship. I understand why this got dropped -- in their adversarial relationship to management, why would unions want to give their opponents another club to beat them with? But it left a void. Teaching the value and nobility of good workmanship has to be taken up elsewhere -- schools being one logical place. It's also my belief that a true craftsman is also an educator of his customers. Our standards should always be higher than those we serve.