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Around 1969 a manager named Frank Pip came up with an idea. He ran Assembly at a Ford Motor Company plant and he said to some people on his team: Go out and buy some Japanese cars, brand-new. Let’s see how they’re put together. At the time, at Ford and at every other American Car Company the standard way to assemble a car was to use a rubber mallet. That each part they came in, was whacked with a mallet to fit into the other part. If there was a rare occasion when you didn’t need a mallet, it was called Snap Fit. Snap Fit was the exception. Well, Pip discovered something extraordinary. The Toyotas were 100% snap fit. They could take the car apart and put it back together without using a mallet once.
Well, you may have guessed what happened when Pip shared this news with the senior Executives. They stared at him silent for a while. And then one of them said: The customer will never notice.
We’re really confused about what perfect means. We’re really confused about what good enough means, and the pursuit of perfection. Oh, let me send it again, I was a little closer: The pursuit of perfection. (My timing was a little bit off.) The pursuit of perfection gets in the way of doing the work that we need to do.
This is episode hundred and twenty, give or take, of the akimbo podcast and I can confidently say that every single episode has been imperfect. There’s no doubt about it. The timing, the levels, the phrasing, the fact checking, the word choice, never once, not one episode has been perfect.
Even my favorite podcast, things like 99% invisible or episode 3 of Mystery Show, are not perfect. So what makes it a great podcast? What does it mean to see a live Broadway show when we know that it is not exactly the same as it was yesterday. If it’s not exactly the same which one was perfect.
What does the pursuit of perfect, let’s call it perfectionism, actually mean? Are we doing it to serve the customer? I don’t think so.
Back to this idea of the customer will never notice, well, in this case, clearly the Ford executive was wrong, because he didn’t understand the Japanese outlook on quality. Japanese weren’t making quality parts because they were hiding from something, because they were perfectionists. They were making quality parts because sticking to spec, going within tolerance of spec, actually made everything in the production of the car more profitable, quality is free and, in addition, the customer does notice.
Because with mechanical things, when it’s a little out of whack, it gets a little more out of whack. When parts don’t fit precisely correctly, they get worse over time. And its tighter tolerances lead to better cars which the customers noticed.
But, and it’s a huge but, if you go into your driveway to your brand-new Lexus and take any part from that brand new car and look at it with an electron microscope, you will see that it’s not perfect at all. There are giant pits and peaks and valleys. It is out of whack to some decimal point. Maybe .001 inches, who knows? It’s a really small number, but it’s not perfect. It’s good enough. It meets spec.
Now, it is entirely possible that as a marketing effort, your definition of good enough is much better than people expect. If you define good enough as remarkable in the way the customer experiences it, you’ve still defined WHAT good enough is.
So if I shipped something, Federal Express back in the old days when a letter took 4 days and FedEx got there by 10.30, that was worth talking about because it arrived the next day. If it got there at 10:15, It’s not better than getting there at 10:30. Certainly not dramatically better.
If I need to make copies of a legal document 300 DPI, looked at through a magnifying glass, is not perfect at all. 1200 DPI approaches retina level and it’s hard for me to tell the difference unaided, but with enough magnification even 2400 DPI, which is really difficult and expensive to do in an office printer, is hardly perfect at all. How perfect does a legal document need to be if I’m making a copy of it? I think we can all agree that if I can accurately read everything that’s on the document without being distracted by its resolution, it is good enough, and that’s its job. There are lots of other things that I want that copier to do. I want that printer to never jam, I wanted it to cost less to use, etc. But I’m not going to pay an extra penny to go from 300 to 600 DPI on the laser print out used for internal documents.
Good enough is something to be proud of. Better than good enough means somewhere along the way you’ve met the spec, probably incorrectly.
But back to perfectionism, the reason we embrace perfectionism is a little complicated. On one hand, we’ve got Frank Pip who correctly said this place is making shoddy stuff. Ford can do better. Look what our competitors are doing. We are going to get killed. That meant he wanted the spec to be better.
He didn’t think you needed to make a perfect Mustang or a perfect Pinto but it would be good to make one that didn’t explode when it was in a rear end collision. It would be good to make one that lasted an extra five or ten thousand miles. But you need to make one and you need to ship it. To ship creative work.
Bringing our creative work to the world is our job. If it doesn’t ship it doesn’t count and this is important.
It’s not ‘just ship it’ which implies ‘What the hell, ship some junk, get it out there.’ It is instead about setting spec appropriately and then ‘merely shipping it’.
Merely shipping it, without commentary, without a lot of drama and without perfectionism. Day after day, hour after hour, week after week, we ship the work.
I call this The Practice. The practice is a process. It’s an approach. It’s a belief that the only way to make things better is to make things. And then to learn what the customer wants. To learn how to engage with the market. To make them better still.
It is a process. Album after album, after album, the Working musician makes her work. Page after page, after page the working author makes their work.
This new book’s got 200 little chapters in it. And as far as I can tell, there are no typos, so it meets spec. But if I rewrote the book, I wouldn’t be writing it word for word the same way. Because there’s a difference between it being perfect and it meeting spec, it being something that changes people.
That what we need to do when we ship creative work is to understand what all three words mean:
Ship. Because, as I said, if it doesn’t ship it doesn’t count. Ship, because ship gives us the chance to engage with the person we made it for. If it’s not good enough for them, we’re doing shoddy work. We need to make it better.
Creative. Creative means you’re doing something that might not work. You’re doing something where perfect is unknown. You’re doing something human, something generous. Something that might make things better. Something to make a change.
And Work. Work, cuz we do it even when we don’t feel like it. Work, because we do it before we’re in the mood. That we get into flow because we’re doing the work, not the other way around.
And built into all of this is that while perfectionism is about us, our belief, our perception of what we’re doing, a place to hide by saying it’s not perfect yet, good enough, spec, great work, remarkable work, is not about us. It is about the person we are making it for.
Which means we have to figure out WHO we’re making it for. We have to be able to find our smallest viable audience, and bring them the smallest viable breakthrough.
We have to figure out how to show up for the people we seek to serve and ignore everyone else.
Reading the reviews from people you DIDN’T make the work for, is a trap. It pushes you toward perfectionism.
Cuz, in this case, when you’re trying to reach lots of people with something that everyone is going to interpret differently, you can’t sand off enough edges. You can’t make it beige enough for everyone, average enough for everyone, indistinguishable enough for everyone.
So, no, a Toyota Corolla isn’t even for everyone, even though they sell millions and millions of them. It’s not for someone who wants a Hot Rod. It’s not for someone who wants to hall a big family, and it’s not for someone who enjoys tinkering with a car that’s a little fussy. It has no Italian racing heritage. It doesn’t make a noise like a Lamborghini or an Aston Martin.
And so for all those things it doesn’t do, it makes a very specific promise about what it does do. And that’s what we need to do with our work.
We need to develop a practice of shipping regularly for the people we seek to serve. To make the change we seek to make. To do it without drama, without a lot of internal commentary.
We must never accept shoddy work. It doesn’t make any sense to make something not as good as it should be. But we will always be making things that are not as good as they could be.
Because if we have unlimited time and unlimited money, of course, we would make something differently, but we don’t have unlimited time. We don’t have unlimited money. And we must interact with the market. We must bring our work to other people so we can learn what they want. How they’re interacting with it. What’s important to them?
So yes, we need a point of view. We need to make assertions. We need to lead. We are not running a focus group to ask people what they want because they don’t know.
But what we are doing, today more easily than ever before, is shipping the work. Here, I made this. Here, I made this.
No, it’s not perfect. But maybe it met spec, and maybe my spec is exactly what you needed.
Transcription: thisten.co (revision: Maya Vázquez)