Director of Content

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional, 202.365.9070

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Mistakes happen, but a big mistake creates fallout in proportion to the authority of the person who makes it

July 25, 2018

An installer and his helper just left our driveway after spending less than an hour preparing to install glass doors on two tile showers. They had set up their power cords and tools, and had begun dry fitting one of the doors, which they’d carried up to the second floor guest bathroom. Soon they discovered that the glass side panel had not been notched to allow for thicker tile at the base. The two showers are identical, so neither panel fit properly. When the installer came across the hall into the room where I was working to explain why they were leaving early, he showed me the eight-page work order to which he’d been referring in the phone conversation he’d had with his office, most of which he knew I had overheard. The notch was clearly shown in the original drawing prepared by the person who’d measured for the doors. In fact, it was present in every version of that drawing except for the last one, which, of course, was the one used by the fabricator to cut the glass.

I Said/He Said

Mistakes are a fact of life on remodeling jobsites, but some are more costly than others. If a window opening is too large, the fix is cheap and easy; if all of the window openings are too large, the fix is proportionately more expensive. But if a window opening is too small, the fix is harder and costlier to make. And if all of the window openings are too small ...

Conventional wisdom has it that the less obvious a mistake is, the harder and more expensive it is to fix. What makes a mistake obvious has a lot to do with timing. An incorrect R. O. becomes obvious pretty early in the project, but other types of errors are hidden until the job is nearly finished. One close call from my days as a contractor occurred on the last day of a kitchen remodel. I’d called my lead carpenter from the office the day before to tell him the client had finally selected cabinet hardware, and I was pretty sure we’d agreed he was to put the knobs on the doors and the pulls on the drawers. He was equally sure we’d agreed to the opposite, so that’s what he did. When I met with the client to discuss the problem, I was prepared to replace all of the cabinet fronts. But we eventually agreed to leave the pulls on the doors and replace the drawer fronts.

The Big One

So whose mistake was it? It’s easy to point the finger at the carpenter. He remembered my saying “knobs on drawers, pulls on doors”; I was sure I’d said “knobs on doors, pulls on drawers.” He must have transposed what I said, right? After all, “doors” sounds a lot like “drawers” when spoken over the phone.

Some mistakes are caused by carelessness or inattention—that’s why carpenters measure twice and cut once. But mistakes like the one over knobs and pulls are caused by a misunderstanding or lack of clarity. Today, with email and text messaging, you’d have to really work at it to make a mistake like that. Preventing miscommunication is why we create systems, put critical information in writing, and use checklists. It’s one reason we increasingly use web-based applications: to ensure that there is only one version of a document and that everyone who needs it has access to it.

But the really big mistakes—the ones that threaten a company’s survival—are not the mistakes carpenters make when laying out walls and putting hardware on cabinets. The big mistakes are not so obvious, and the fallout they create is proportional to the authority wielded by the business owners and managers who make them—with the stroke of a pen, a poorly considered decision, or a failure to act. The big mistakes are expensive, not only in dollars and cents, but also in the erosion of employee morale and employee confi- dence, the subversion of subcontractor loyalty, and the decline of customer satisfaction.

The glass company will survive having to remake two glass panels. But it may lose the installer, who was annoyed at the time he had wasted, and embarrassed for what he perceived as his company’s ineptness, and for the way the drama played out within earshot of his customer. And although it wasn’t his fault, he was genuinely apologetic at having to make us wait another week for our shower doors.

From what I overheard, the mistake was made by the person who signed off on the final drawing.

It was the company owner.

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