Where did the quality go?

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?


Categories: Management & Leadership