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Posted: February 21, 2012

Where did the quality go?

And forget the "no time" excuse

David Sneed

On my credenza sits a tulipwood box made in 1738 by E.S. I know the date and builder because he carved these facts into the base. Several weeks ago, I pointed out the craftsmanship to an unimpressed visitor who explained: “Well, they had a lot more time back then.”

It’s easy to believe the dated box in my office was built in a slower era, and that quality and craftsmanship are in short supply only because of our hectic lives. Easy to believe, but wrong.  To begin with, we have the night time. None of us remembers life before Edison’s miracle bulb, so we forget that night is a recent luxury.  While it’s true our forefathers had great night vision, their ability to work after dark still depended on the fullness of the moon.

Not only do we have twice the workable hours, we have more days.  The colonial farmer (and everyone was a farmer in 1738) could expect to live for 46 years. Today’s man is just reaching his prime at 46, nearly ready to take life seriously.

And remember: colonial man was a farmer - and all that that entails. He built the farmhouse, the barns and the mill, cleared the fields of tree and rock, plowed, cared for the animals, harvested the crop and hunted to supplement the larder. The tools our ancestor used he made himself - there was no big box store just down the lane. And before he could make the tools, he had to build the forge and workshop.

Oh, and none of that happened on a Sunday. He had 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 46 years. Math-wise, that’s 145,000 hours. A man today who doesn’t have to hunt or farm or go to church, has 16 hours for 72 years - or 420,000 hours.

We live three times longer than the man in 1738 and have a lot less to do, so the question is: Where did the quality go, and why?

I think we never lost the ability to produce quality; what we really lost was patience and ownership.

E.S. patiently built a toolbox to protect the tools he made himself. He cared for them because time was too valuable to waste, and the tools too valuable to lose. He felt the true ownership that only comes from creation.

Today we can buy a $10 hammer any day of the week. As the price goes down, so does the quality, since the hammer doesn’t need to last beyond this nail. We don’t have a personal connection to the hammer, so its short life doesn’t bother us either. And before you go thinking I have a vendetta against cheap hammers - maybe you think one killed my pa or something - I don’t. The hammer represents everything else we buy.

As a general rule, we give up quality for quantity. By accepting a cheaper hammer, we can afford a cheap saw as well, even though we know that neither is built to last.

And we want instant gratification. In 1738, a farmer who was planning to build a barn would cut the timber years in advance to let the wood season. He planned ahead and waited. That doesn’t happen today for either makers or users. Shareholders and customers won’t wait for wood to season any more than I’ll wait for a homemade pizza. Totino’s will be ready in 20 minutes and, although I know it’s just better than cardboard, I’m willing to trade quality for time.

And that’s the dilemma we face as business owners. Should I pay a worker for two hours to make a quality product when he can make a decent product in one? The economics of capitalism say no, at least if the marketing department does their job and sells our decent wares. As a consumer, is it worth the price and time doubling to get a better pizza?

Whatever discussion we have of quality, let’s leave time out of it. We have plenty of time to do a job correctly. The proper question to ask is: Is it worth it to me and my brand to do something the right way just because it’s the right way?


David Sneed is the owner of Alpine Fence Company,and the author of" Everyone Has A Boss– The Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company." As a Marine, father, employee and boss, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the benefits of a strong work ethic to entry and mid-level employees. Contact him at

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Readers Respond

Kurt, By that rationale, a 1988 YUGO is a better car than a 2004 Mercedes F1 since I could buy 6, or maybe 10 thousand YUGO's for the price of one F1. I think there is absolutely an absolute way to measure quality - based on the characteristics you desire in said product. Price, in my opinion, is not a characteristic of a product. By David Sneed on 2012 02 24
Quality should not be measured absolutely but relative the amount of money required to obtain a certain level of quality. Given this, quality has never been better. Sure the $2 hammer is cheap compared to the $20 hammer, but will the $20 hammer last as long as 10 $2 hammers? Probably not, and today we have the choice as consumers to buy either hammer. If one does not use a hammer much, he might appreciate the availability of the cheaper alternative that can get the job done when occasionally called upon. By Kurt Leyendecker on 2012 02 24
Check out the late author/artist Eric Sloane By David Sneed on 2012 02 21
David is correct - we will continue to choose the hammer that will "do" for right now, instead of making buying decisions that will "do better" for tomorrow as well. Apologize for all the postings, CO Biz was counting characters instead of words. By Snowwhite on 2012 02 21
I submit that as long as foreign manufacturers continue to steal American designs and innovation - recreate a product in a fraction of the time (and extremely lower cost) it took Americans - sell it back to Americans at 40% below retail price - we will continue to see product quality decline. By Snowwhite on 2012 02 21
(Cont.) Or, are we looking the other way as we continue to diminish the true quality that consumers have taken for granted to satisfy our shareholders? By Snowwhite on 2012 02 21
Good food for thought, David. And, Ed, I believe that the debate continues in boardrooms and on factory floors around the world - is value engineering bringing the true benefit to the consumer as is intended? By Snowwhite on 2012 02 21
As a friend says, "you get what you pay for." There's something to be said about paying for quality, i.e. value. Is it worth it to pay $20 for a premium hammer (to use your analogy), knowing it will last a lifetime vs. $10 for a hammer that will probably break in a year and need to be replaced? By Jeff Pugel on 2012 02 21
Good points, David, but there's a false choice here. One need not decide between quality and cost or time. Quality improvement ALSO reduces cost and shortens time. In a quality driven firm, workers have the same level of pride in workmanship as in your example, but do it faster and cheaper, too. By Ed Powers on 2012 02 21
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