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Hold your hand up in front of you with your thumb and index finger about one inch apart. In many situations, that short distance represents the difference between quality and crap. Most of the time, all it takes to bridge that “crap gap” is to do a little more questioning, listening, thinking, measuring, or testing before delivering the product or declaring the job complete. Ignoring the crap gap can be expensive for the workers and annoying for their victims.

A sign in my college chemistry laboratory asked: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I took that message to heart. In my career as a software engineer, I found it was well worth the time to try to do the job right the first time. Yes, it took a bit longer, but I didn’t have to fix it later on when an unhappy customer pointed out a bug.

The Crap Gap Illustrated

Here’s a great example of the crap gap in everyday life. I have my home’s heating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems cleaned and checked annually, a two-hour job. One autumn the technician who arrived was a rather arrogant guy who seemed to believe he was the world’s top HVAC expert. When Bill finished, I asked if he wanted to do a final test to make sure everything was working right. “Not necessary,” he replied cockily as he headed out the door. “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” Okay, but personally, I like to verify correctness before declaring victory.

Time passed. We experienced an unusually cold Sunday. The heat pump couldn’t keep up, so the thermostat called for the electric resistance backup heat to kick in. But it didn’t. I phoned my HVAC company for an emergency service call to fix the problem. Their technician climbed into my freezing attic and discovered that Bill had broken a wire by twisting a wire nut on improperly. That broken wire prevented the backup heat from coming on.

Had Bill bothered to test the system before he left, he would have discovered the problem and corrected it in five minutes. Instead, his company had to send another technician to fix it at their expense for this double-cost, weekend service call. That’s the crap gap in action. Skipping a tiny step — a final test — cost Bill’s employer a couple of hundred dollars, inconvenienced my family, and sent me to a different service provider for my future HVAC work. Was Bill’s shortcut worth it in the long run? Nope.

A company that handles a crap-gap situation properly can come out ahead. When another small business did a shoddy job for me, I reported my dissatisfaction on the follow up survey. The company’s owner offered to either refund my money or send someone else out to do the work right. I chose the latter. The second guy did a great job and I used that company for years afterward. If the owner had blown me off, I would have known he was perfectly okay with the crap gap and never would have given them my future business.

Crap-gap behavior seems to be common with home service providers; it nearly always backfires on them. I had my home’s gutters cleaned recently. The cleaners didn’t rinse them properly, and debris remained in the two gutters I could peer into from my windows. The cleaning company’s operations manager came out to take a look and agreed this was not acceptable. He sent a second team to wash out the gutters properly. Had the first people done the job right, the company would have saved two extra trips to my house and several unplanned hours of work.

Some individuals are more diligent about doing a good job than others, depending on the pride they take in their work and the time they’re given to do it. My experience has been that management often is more concerned about quality — thereby increasing the chance of repeat business and not having to waste time on rework — than are certain employees. It’s up to management to shape a company culture in which individual employees feel both empowered and expected to do the job well.

One good way to handle situations like this is to point out to the provider that the defective work does not appear to be up to their standards. No one likes to be told their work falls short. People who take pride in their work have standards regarding the quality their customers can expect. Service and product providers who care about their reputation stand behind their work, so they’ll fix these kinds of silly problems at their cost. It’s a lot nicer for everyone involved if they don’t have to, though.

Sometimes people deliberately take shortcuts, hoping you won’t notice. The people who did some siding repair work on my house one time found some rot at the bottom of a corner molding piece. They cut off the rotted portion and remounted the shortened piece back in place. However, now there were unsightly gaps of several inches between the ends of the molding and the siding at both top and bottom. This molding piece was in an unobvious location they hoped I wouldn’t spot.

Being a detail guy, I did detect the problem the next day. I didn’t appreciate the attempted deception on an otherwise high-quality job. The company had to send a worker out to replace that truncated corner molding piece. That is, they had to do the work properly before I would pay them. Both of us would have saved time had they done the job correctly in the first place instead of requiring an additional service call. Moreover, when I see something obviously done wrong like this, it makes me wonder how many other problems there were that I just can’t see. I don’t fully trust the provider anymore.

The Cost of Quality

Perhaps you’ve heard that quality is free, which was the title of a classic 1980 book by Philip B. Crosby. This expression means the incremental additional effort it takes to do a job properly is a smart investment. It often takes far more time and costs much more to fix a problem than to prevent one. Work done poorly is a hassle for the customer, and it can cost the company time, money, goodwill, and future business.

The term “cost of quality” refers to the total price a company pays to deliver products and services of acceptable quality. The cost of quality includes four components:

  • Prevention costs (developing procedures, training staff, instilling quality awareness)
  • Appraisal costs (testing and inspecting products and services for problems)
  • Internal failure costs (fixing problems before shipping the product or driving away)
  • External failure costs (fixing problems after delivery)

Companies sometimes seem to view the first three categories as costs to be minimized so as to maximize profits. A consequence of that attitude can be higher external failure costs. For instance, it’s far more disruptive for an automobile company to issue a recall notice than to prevent the problem that led to a recall. And external failures can include less tangible downsides: loss of customers, bad press, poor product reviews, and maybe a reduced stock price for publicly-held companies.

A company’s managers might consciously elect to tolerate some rework as an acceptable trade-off versus spending a little more to do the job right at the outset. That’s a business decision that might pay off for them on the accounting books. However, that still leaves the issue of customer hassle because of flawed work, which should fit into the trade-off analysis somewhere. Customer goodwill might be intangible, but it’s real.

Too many service providers seem to accept rework as an unavoidable cost of doing business. I see it in my professional field of software development, as well as in my personal experiences around the house. A certain amount of rework — and a certain amount of ordinary human error — is to be expected, but I firmly believe it can be cut down dramatically if people focus on doing the job properly in the first place.

Every business should keep metrics about how much it spends on this sort of unexpected rework so it can seek to avoid it, often through better processes and staff training. Companies that do measure what they spend on rework — both internal and external failure — often are shocked at the numbers. Reducing rework increases your profit; it’s that simple.

The Crap Gap and Daily Life

Avoiding the crap gap often is just a matter of thinking a little bit more before deciding how to proceed. My wife and I are the second owners of our home. It has an alarm system, with one control panel upstairs and one next to the front door. However, the way the house is designed, we never come in through the front door after having been away; we always enter the house from the garage. Then we need to zip over to the front door to disarm the system. Similarly, we invariably leave through the garage because we’re driving somewhere. We must arm the system at the front door and then walk quickly to the door into the garage before the alarm goes off.

Had whoever positioned the alarm considered how the home’s occupants would actually enter and exit, he would have realized it made far more sense to put the downstairs control panel by the door into the garage rather than the front door. By not taking two minutes for that usage-centric thought process, the residents of this house will be inconvenienced for decades.

The crap gap appears in myriad ways in daily life. Some are inconsequential or even amusing, though others can incur real costs. You no doubt can think of your own examples, but here are a few more I’ve encountered:

  • Many books these days contain homophone errors, using a word that sounds like the intended word but means something different (right, write, rite). This is a sign of sloppy editing.
  • I complete a survey or fill out a catalog order form, only to discover that the supplied return envelope is too small for the page to be mailed back. I need to fold it up to fit into the envelope.
  • I had to visit the emergency room at a hospital while I was on vacation. The bill included charges for some blood tests. But they had never drawn any of my blood to be tested.
  • A popular website shows that I have one notification. When I click on the notification icon, the message is: “You don’t have any notifications.” This happens every single time I log into my account.

All of these mistakes are preventable with a tiny amount of additional effort, if people will just take the time to be aware of the issue.

Bridging the crap gap doesn’t take much effort. It’s a matter of measuring twice, checking one more time, and then making the cut. It means retesting the software after you make changes, not simply assuming it’s error-free. It’s thinking about how a product will be used, not just its features, and using a checklist to reduce the chance of overlooking something important. It’s checking the facts before you make an irate post, or asking people to review what you write before you distribute it. It’s asking one more person for input, confirming a decision before proceeding, and validating your assumptions.

Quality is clearly not free in the sense of costing you nothing up front, but it pays off big time in the long run. When it comes to quality, it’s not “You can pay now or you can pay later.” It’s “You can pay now or you can pay a lot more later.”

Minding the crap gap is an attitude. It’s a matter of taking pride in your work and desiring a reputation for quality. You need not go an extra mile to avoid the crap gap. Just an inch or so usually does it.

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If you’re interested in requirements and business analysis, project management, software quality, or consulting, Process Impact provides numerous useful publications, downloads, and other resources.

Written by

I’ve written on software development and management, consulting, self-help, chemistry, military history, and a mystery novel. More info at karlwiegers.com.

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