Practice doesn’t need to make perfect

14_gregwilliams_01You don't want to produce shoddy work, but 'good enough' means meeting quality standards without obsessing over minutia

I've been teaching technicians to do finish touch-up for more than 30 years, both as an employer and supervisor of technicians, as a sales representative for the world's largest supplier of touch-up and repair products, as a full-time instructor for that company and, more recently, as a consultant and contract trainer.

It never ceases to amaze me how many of my students will admit to being somewhat of a perfectionist in their personalities and habits, and that they generally do see it as a problem for which they have no solution. Some express a lot of frustration at not being able to do a perfect, undetectable repair under any light or by any person.

This complaint is so commonplace that I often offer counseling sessions in the bar for those who can't get that particular monkey off their back.

There certainly is room in the profession, art and craft of furniture touch-up and repair for the perfectionist, but there is not room for all of those who practice the craft to satisfy their need to perform perfect repairs at all times.

Unless the customer has unlimited funds to spend on the repair, or the repair technician is willing to work to satisfy his own perfectionist ambitions on his own time, and at his own cost, there will be limitations to the resources available for a given repair. There will be constraints relative to the tools the technician has at his disposal, his skills, the environment in which he works, and the time available for the repair.

Meeting the standard

The quality standard for repairs will vary according to the tastes and needs of the customer. The "customer" is the next person who can say yes or no to the repair. This can be a supervisor, the owner of the piece, an inspector or insurance adjuster. The technician should meet the standard for repair with the least expenditure of resources.

 

Factors that the technician must take into consideration:

• Environment (temperature, humidity, air movement, lighting, work area, geographical location, including distance from home base, and regulatory constraints).

• The tools you can afford, carry and use.

• Your physical, mental and emotional ability.

The value of the piece and possible loss of value because of a botched repair should also be considered. A technique that is easier to perform, but presents a greater risk of failure, or even greater damage, may be acceptable for a low-value repair, but not for a critical repair on an expensive piece. The cost of failure must be weighed against the possibility of the reward for success.

I once had a partner in a part-time business of doing in-house touch-up and repair. Jim was a good technician, an honest and forthright person, and very conscientious. On too many occasions I heard him reply to a customer who had just remarked on how good his repair was that he really wanted to do better, but just couldn't get it this time. The customer could say "Why, that's wonderful. I can't even see it!" Jim would point out the repair, saying "It's right here. See, it's too red."

Sometimes he wouldn't charge the customer when he wasn't happy with the repair, even though the customer was quite happy.

Jim and I eventually agreed that he would do the repair and I'd do the talking and collect the money.

Time to move on

When it's good enough, quit. This doesn't excuse shoddy work. "Good enough" means "meets the quality standards for this repair" or "conforms to specifications" for that repair.

As a professional repair technician, your duty is to perform the task in such a way as to meet that standard and to charge sufficiently to stay in business, to provide for your needs by satisfying the legitimate (both those expressed and silent) needs of your customer, and to do it in the most efficient and effective way possible.

It is important to understand that when you have reached that standard, working beyond that point to "make it better" is no longer working to satisfy the customer, but is now working to satisfy something in you. It increases the risk that you will negate what you've already done or, worse, create greater damage. I don't know of any experienced repairman who has not, at one time or another, started with a small repair, made it look pretty good, and then attempted to make it "perfect," only to ruin what he'd done and make a bigger mess than he started with.

The best repairman for most circumstances is one who can clearly communicate with the client about what is possible and likely regarding the repair, and who can reach an understanding with the client as to what will be acceptable, prior to commencing the repair.

Dollars and sense

This applies in production work, too, such as furniture or cabinet manufacturing, or custom building. In this case, the "client" is not the eventual owner of the item, but the person who can approve the repair. This could be the next production employee to handle the piece, or a quality control inspector, foreman, manager or shop owner.

The task of the repairman is to understand clearly what the standard for that repair is in terms of aesthetics and performance, how to achieve that standard with the minimum of resources and to exercise the discipline to do so. I suggest that the technician set his own standard slightly higher than the standard set for him. He will sometimes fail slightly to hit that mark, and still satisfy the client. He will sometimes surpass that mark, which will usually cost more in resources, but this practice will result in a satisfied client on a high percentage of attempts.

Doing significantly more or less will cost him time and money.

I don't mean to imply there is no need for perfectionism, or that a perfect repair can't be performed, and I won't try to define a perfect or even acceptable repair. I do want to emphasize that one major problem I see in this connection is the lack of understanding and agreement between the technician and the client as to what constitutes an acceptable repair. The second problem is the inability of the technician to match up the client's expectation of the results, and the technician's ability to perform to the standard in such a manner that he makes the money he needs.

I can't take credit for this observation. I think I read or heard it somewhere, and immediately made it my own: "At some point you cease working for the customer, and begin working for your own ego." That's OK, if your ego is paying you enough. But does your ego feed your family?

Greg Williams, formerly senior touch-up and finishing instructor for Mohawk Finishing Products, is now a freelance instructor and consultant for finishing and touch-up. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue.