(Editor’s note:) Just a few days ago I was working with a cross-cut panel saw that was well beyond the point that could reasonably be considered “dull” and was approaching “completely useless”. Suddenly I heard Mark Harrell’s voice in my head telling me to grab a file and put some new life into those saw teeth. Now, Mark wasn’t anywhere near my North Carolina shop at the time, but his influence has changed the way I think about saws and how they are supposed to work. I’m lucky enough to have a few of his backsaws in my till. They set a high standard indeed but all of that excellence is no accident. It is the result of Mark’s constant search for a more perfect saw and his refusal to lower the standards of his craft.
For that reason alone (although there are plenty more) I was delighted when Mark agreed to throw his hat into the ring and take over The Daily Skep as today’s guest writer. It’s my pleasure to present:
On Parachutes, Saws, and Perfection
By Mark D. Harrell
Do you ever say to yourself upon completing a task . . . “Wow! I did that incredibly well!”
It’s a great feeling, isn’t it? But can you get yourself to say it on a daily basis, when people pay you good money to do a job well? It depends entirely on whether your mindset is dedicated to excellence in all things, an unyielding drive to achieve perfection in all tasks, simple and complex, while at the same time adhering to the dictates of a tight schedule and one’s operational flow on the job.
It’s never easy, nor should it be.
The pursuit of perfection in one’s endeavors is therefore a daily choice, usually made in the flash of a moment. Whereas an apathetic slaphead will throw something up on the wall to see whether it sticks, then punch in and out of a clock-driven timecard like a mindless cow, there are others in the gene pool for whom perfection—or more accurately—the pursuit of excellence in all things is never optional.
It’s an attitude best exemplified by the myriad of Special Forces officers and NCOs I was fortunate to serve with in the Army where doing the right thing when the boss isn’t looking counts the most. Personal and moral courage count. Fitness counts. Doing things right and above standard the first time—it all counts. What’s at stake? The life or death of one’s peers and subordinates, who rely upon you in dangerous situations.
I once served with a 17-year-old Private back in the early 90’s, who is now a Lieutenant Colonel recently selected for battalion command. Back in the day, Private Desiree Soumoy used to pack the parachutes for our battalion. As you can imagine, this was an important job: If the chute didn’t open, one tended to go splat on the drop zone. So—every Soldier in our battalion literally put our lives in Desiree’s capable hands when flinging ourselves out of a perfectly functioning aircraft cruising over the drop zone, usually less than 1000’ above ground level–and cheating death, trusting that the parachute would actually deploy. What a bunch of adrenaline junkies we were! But we’d always take the time to pass along our gratitude for a job well done to Desiree and her fellow Soldiers in the rigger section, who literally safeguarded our lives with each parachute they prepared for the jump.
Now flash forward 25 years. A Gulf War era veteran, and more recently, Operation Iraqi Freedom vet, Lieutenant Colonel Desiree Soumoy will quite likely be selected for attendance at the Army War College after command, promotion to Colonel, and groomed for promotion to General Officer within the next five years. She is fit, exudes command presence, and cares deeply about the Soldiers under her command. It’s easy for Soldiers to follow her brand of leadership.
For people like Lieutenant Colonel Soumoy, excellence in all things is never optional, because it defines who she is—whether it’s packing a parachute as a Private, deploying into harm’s way as a Captain, or comporting herself with complete empathy and professionalism as a Casualty Assistance Officer with the parents and loved ones surviving the combat-related death of their Soldier (yes, she did that too).
The moral of the story? Age and rank just doesn’t matter. Experience and even reputation doesn’t matter. A daily determination to dedicate one’s self to excellence in all things is the constant that has gotten Desiree to where she is today. And that’s because she is still the same Soldier who packed our parachutes and got it right every time twenty-five years ago as a young Private.
So how does this mindset translate in the business and manufacturing world, and specifically Bad Axe’s sawmaking business in a resurgent hand tool industry? No life will be sacrificed on the altar of a dull backsaw. Any blood spilled consists of a toothline cut on your forearm during the sharpening process. But there is most certainly a life and death scenario for Bad Axe as a business with employees, which at the end of the day puts bread on the table for a number of people and contributes to the economy.
When you get right down to it, we’re really only as good the last saw passing through our door when it’s picked up by our shipper. Success is defined by our customers’ belief that the saw they paid a premium for was worth the expense. The customer absolutely has to go, “Wow—this is the best saw I’ve ever owned!” Otherwise, we’re just going through the motions, flailing about like a flawed parachute in a death spiral.
Making this kind of customer response happen depends on fostering a mindset of excellence within our company’s culture, the foundation of which can be traced directly back to the Soldiers populating the battalion Desiree and I served in 25 years ago: a gritty determination to stack the boxes square, sticker the lumber so it won’t warp. Tape hospital corners on a customer’s box and affix the labels just so, such that the $300 saw they’re taking delivery on looks at first blush like a $300 saw while it’s still in the box. It’s about sharpening to joint, not just creating a sharp toothline. It’s about having the moral courage to own a mistake and completely re-work a saw if it’s not excellent.
This dedication to excellence only works when everyone in our shop concludes every task under their control with uncompromising excellence. It’s a demanding attitude, and it’s never easy. We make mistakes. Then we fix them and move forward, always assessing, always putting a fresh set of eyes on the task at hand.
And throughout the entire process, day in and day out, there’s that inner voice rattling around in the back of your mind, ever entreating you, bugging you, at times kicking you square in the gut, demanding to know whether you’re ready to jump out of an airplane with a parachute someone else packed, or when assessing whether a saw is ready for market. Know what that voice demands of you to answer?
“Does this saw I’m holding make me go ‘wow—I made that incredibly well!’”
The answer lies in whether or not the parachute you packed opened without fail.
See you on the drop zone.