From the Shop: Slightly Better.

Facebook reminded me this week, as it does, that nine years ago this week, I molded the first Blackfly boats.  That first boat, Blackfly #001, still hangs in a place of honor, along with Option #001, in the Blackfly shop.  Looking at those early boats now, it’s pretty obvious that I’ve gotten slightly better at making boats after nine years and a few hundred boats.

Blackfly #001

Actually, if you looked at those compared to the work I’m doing today, you’d probably say “slightly better” is a understatement.  But I would say “slightly better” isn’t the result; it’s the process.  Get slightly better, over and over, constantly, relentlessly.  There are enough tropes about the unattainability of perfection that I don’t need to pick one, but you can always do slightly better.  I don’t think I’ll every make a “perfect” boat, and I’m not sure I want to (because, where would I go from there?) I’d rather start with “good enough” and move incrementally toward perfect….try to be slightly better each day.  Call it “pragmatic perfectionism.”

It turns out, however, progress doesn’t always move in a straight line, or move forward all the time.  As an example, last winter I tested out a different adhesive for assembling saddles.  I got to a point where I couldn’t stand trying to balance contact cement fumes vs. ventilation in the shop any more, and it was messy. I built a saddle for myself, put it through it’s paces, adjusted the design for the new adhesive, tested some more, etc.  It produced a nice clean saddle and everything looked promising.  But when I put it into production, despite my best efforts to resolve issues, I couldn’t get consistent results with it.  But the process gave me some other ideas on saddle tweaks and production methods, and I managed to source some 8″ thick foam- the thickness I need to make saddles and bulkheads.  The downside to using thicker foam is, in order to cut it on the CNC router, I need to cut half the thickness, flip it, position it precisely, and then cut the other side.  It turns out that doing that precisely positioning something that’s slightly squishy and probably not quite square is really tricky, so they end up with the cuts being slightly mis-aligned.  Not enough to impact the functionality of it at all, but enough to bother the guy who’s making them.  But…the result is a much more consistent, robust saddle assembly, and over time, as I get slightly better at figuring out the positioning, I can inch closer toward perfection.

It’s something I think about almost every day, and it’s something I try to reflect on every week.  What did I do better?  What can I do better next?  The challenge of constantly pushing toward better is one of the things that really motivates me.

I see three kinds of “better:”  improved efficiency, improved consistency, and improved (tighter) tolerance.  Tighter tolerance is the one you’ll notice the most.  It’s the fit and finish, how polished is it?  Improving efficiency is a funny one, because the end user will probably never notice it.  When you buy a boat, you won’t be able to tell that I just added a wireless remote to control my CNC router so I can set up and run things faster and easier, unless you somehow notice that I’m using a little of that extra time to slightly improve the set up or give additional focus on other aspects of quality.  But for me, the little tweaks to the process are cumulative and greatly increase productivity.  Improved consistency is another one I’ll probably notice more than the customer, but it’s probably the most important of the three.  Does it meet spec, and how close to the ideal is it?  Anyone who has done a lot of glueing with contact cement knows that it can sometimes be temperamental depending on temperature, humidity, drying time, etc.  If you let it sit too long, it can be inconsistent.  When assembling saddles, I’ve always done the final coat on a batch of bulkheads, then the saddles, and then tried to get them all stuck together before it dried too much.  It usually worked pretty well.  But while doing saddles this week, I realized it makes more sense to do a saddle, do a pair of knee blocks, set them together, do another saddle, another pair of knee blocks, set them together, etc.  When the first set has tacked enough, start assembling each one.  It’s slightly better, and it’s one of those “I don’t know why I haven’t been doing it this way” things (I blame the fumes.)

Speaking of fumes, there was one other process improvement I made this week.  While I do have a really good respirator, it’s still kind of a pain to work in the shop after I’ve been gluing.  So I’ve come up with a strategy for dealing with ventilation.  I spend the morning assembling saddles and glueing, then leave the windows open and go paddling for the afternoon.  And that… That’s “way better.”