I like documentaries. I am especially interested in those that develop processes or methodologies, or how aluminum cans are manufactured or how this or that bridge or dam was built. I try to extract ideas from other sectors that help me do my own work better. My relationships with Portland cement or autogenous welding are tangential but deep.
One of these many documentaries was about the manufacturing process of the Pagani Huayra, the million-dollar car. A phrase that a person in charge of the components, speaking and showing a specific piece, stuck with me:
“The seat rests on this piece. It’s a piece Pagani is quite satisfied with because if, one day, the client drops a coin and looks under the seat, he or she will see that it is beautiful.”
Horacio Pagani is the owner and builder of these cars. I don’t know how many coins usually fall out of the pocket of a person who has a million-dollar car parked at home. In this sense, Pagani seems to be oblivious to the theory of probability. In any case, the anecdote stuck with me because it resonated in my head as something familiar, as a very graphic example of some of my own ideas.
Some time ago, I started at a company to build its first internal product design team. There was a lot to do and the CEO asked me how I wanted to approach the work within the company and the philosophy that I thought should contribute to the design of the product. I told him that I would think about it and get back to him.
A few days later, I sent him an e-mail with the subject “Pagani’s screws” and a brief message saying something like “I envisage this” and a link to the documentary with the specific minute in which the anecdote appeared. I recommend you see all of it.
Why did I write “Pagani’s screws”?
After so many years, how should I know? I sent it using my corporate mail account and it’s possible that the subject wasn’t exactly that and that I have stored a modified memory. The truth is that “Pagani’s screws” doesn’t sound as good as “The piece that Pagani uses to secure the bottom of the driver’s seat.” In any case, the screws are truly special (1,200 screws cost €96,000). The important thing is that both the screws and that documentary represent and are consistent with Pagani’s working philosophy, which I interpret, mainly, in two ways:
The importance of taking care of the details does not depend on how much or how little they are seen. The important thing is the effect they generate when a person discovers them.
The importance of taking care of the details does not depend on whether they are seen or not. The important thing is that they help make the product what it is.
I like this example because it has multiple readings, but for this post I’ll stick with the second one: we strive to polish the surface, what the user sees, and we neglect (better said, not everyone takes care of) the many things that are “under the seat” that we build: workplace, company philosophy, quality criteria, methodologies, work processes... I’m going to focus on this last one.
There are many factors that are not seen but are part of the product. I think, in one way or another, everything contributes to the final result. Not everything resides in what the user can discover but in what is necessary to build something that is high quality. To build something of excellent quality you need to start from the inside, with great materials, tools, and professionals.
I believe that trying to improve work methodology is the responsibility of all professionals, within their own spheres and capacities. It’s not just about “What we’re going to work on”, but even more importantly, “How are we going to work”. Over the years, I have not met many people who have internalized this idea (or, at least, the intention of it).
Sometimes, even the “What” is diffuse, and improvisation and indecision are mixed up with terms such as “liquid processes” or “agility.”
Many people draw a line between the execution of tasks and how to do them: the latter may be seen as the responsibility of bosses, the organization, or the company. So, what happens when neither the bosses, nor the organization, nor the company think about the processes, or not with the level of detail that the team requires? The whole team suffers from that lack and from problems related to “how”, so long as things continue to move forward. At what price? Never mind. Forward! Work methods remain in a no man’s land that affect everyone and that few take ownership of, perhaps in part because they are not identified as work.
Generating work methodologies requires certain qualities and abilities:
- To be able to detect problems
- To be able to identify improvement points
- To be able to build solutions
- To be able to implement solutions
Most people handle the first point quite well, we can detect problems without much effort. Simply wanting to delve into the other points is, in itself, extremely valuable.
Protocols. Work systems. What odd things.
The National Transport and Safety Board (NTSB) is an American agency that is responsible for investigating accidents, from airplanes to railroads. It’s a kind of CSI team that’s in charge of thoroughly investigating all the factors involved in, for example, an airplane accident and the chain of events that resulted in it (technical, human, weather). Why? Because hundreds of lives can potentially be in danger, because identifying a fault or problem can save hundreds of people (and, it has to be said, save a lot of money). The primary results of what they do are usually modifications that have a major impact: adjustments in manufacturing chains of parts or vehicles, specific training for teams, the creation of or changes in processes and protocols. The costs of such modifications are usually not minor but they are fundamental in avoiding the repetition of mistakes that lead to catastrophes.
Is what we do really important?
For those of us who work building “common” digital products (I hope you’ll understand what I mean by that), the consequences of what we do are not too serious. Most of the time they are transitory: delays, money, scrapped projects, errors, or simply an uncomfortable experience (although this, built up over time, is not minor either). If we get used to these work scenarios (I’m talking about what’s avoidable), being inefficient can become a blind spot that we stop detecting. This is alarming because we stop looking for ways to improve.
We don’t handle precision units of tenths of a millimeter, nor do we send rockets into space. Bad calculations can lead to a bridge collapse; without a protocol, a piece of an airplane is left unchecked; without proper training, a surgeon can mess up. We accept that thoroughness in these sectors is a necessity but we exclude it from our own.
The relative importance of our work should not make us negligent or make us exempt from looking for better ways to work in order to deliver high quality results, both internally and externally.
Baltasar Gracian, in his “Art of Prudence”, says:
“Always act as if someone is watching you. That way, your actions develop consistency.”
Without succumbing to paranoid mania, an adapted reading might be:
“Act and build as if the user can observe absolutely everything.”
A perverse circle is established in which the results perpetuate inefficient processes. That is, if a company achieves the objectives that have been set or generates specific results, an implicit message is being delivered: things must be being done well because if not how else could these results have been achieved? Congratulations, thanks, applause (deserved, however). I don’t usually encounter exhaustive analyses of the cost of working poorly, and you often hear “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The thing is, does it really work?
Many structural problems with regard to environment, team philosophy, process, or methodology do not emerge or come to light so long as the results continue to be interpreted as synonymous with efficiency.
Sometimes it is shocking that certain things are built or sustained, but when you think about it you get to see what they are based on: energy, professionalism, motivation, and even the frustration of many people. How much of that tremendous burden could not be relieved if things relied on more efficient methodologies, work processes that take time and effort to create and polish? This would help direct the energy to take care of the details that make a product something excellent.
If, one day, if users were to look “under the seat” of what we have built, what would they find? Would they say it was beautiful?
Kindly translated by F.J. Robledano-Espín. Thanks!
Thank you very much for getting here. If you want to continue reading, you have access to more material. Any questions, ideas, opinions, or suggestions you’d like to share (or discuss) are more than welcome. If you don’t care for public conversations, write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll chat.
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Iván Leal - Medium
Read writing from Iván Leal on Medium. Digital products designer, Narrative UX Lead at BBVA · If you have a problem, if…
Photo credits: Luxury launches