The value of making real things

My father was a well-respected civil engineer. A colleague of his told me he was an “engineer’s engineer, the go-to guy when you had any question.” But he was also a craftsman who took pride in doing things well and paid attention to small details. His father (my grandfather) was the same way: he did so many things with the intentional precision of a of a fine cabinetmaker.

I’ve been thinking about this recently as I try to discover meaning in the second half of my own life, and trying to better articulate the organizational value of craftsmanship and good work when good enough seems to be the measure for many in business.

Soft issues like feelings, intuition, aesthetics, style, or behavior really matter to an organization’s health in ways that are difficult to measure. It’s not that smart people don’t understand this (intellectually), it’s that they can’t act on it (emotionally). And I think there’s a connection between that emotional engagement (or lack of it) and craftsmanship.

Fewer and fewer people today actually make stuff – real tangible things, not abstract ideas like wealth or solutions – and so fewer and fewer people have the opportunity to develop an appreciation for the meticulousness that is required to excel at a craft and do really good work.

When you enter a craft, you quickly realize that it takes both patience (time) and persistence (effort) to master it. The idea of building fine furniture or cooking a world-class meal is straight-forward, but actually doing it exposes you to feelings and emotions that don’t ever appear in the measured drawings or recipe. And the only way to get good at it is to keep trying. And trying. And trying (that is, just because you’ve tried something 50 times doesn’t mean the result is going to be wonderful).

In many business activities, good enough seems to be sufficient – the presentation, brochure, report, website, product, event is good enough. Good enough to make it to the next stage, meet the immediate expectation, satisfy the boss, check it off the list. Which is fine – but that doesn’t mean it’s good (or great). Consider Oldsmobile. Or Blackberry.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when good enough is just fine. When the stakes are low it would be silly to use limited resources to produce world-class stuff. The slide show on the company picnic probably doesn’t need the $300/hour agency treatment. But of course the challenge is if one can’t really distinguish between good enough and good (or excellent), then how can one know when good enough isn’t?

My theory is that those with little experience in making real things also lack certain emotional experiences that help them understand and act on the softer ideas that help give an organization meaning and soul.

Well, that’s my theory (or maybe half-theory). I’m still working on it.

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