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Posted by on Sep 13, 2010

A Thousandth of an Inch, Or, “Good Enough For Government Work”?

For my mid-life crisis I bought an electric guitar. (It was cheaper and more acceptable than some of the alternatives.) This weekend, I took it to a local repair shop I found on the web (http://www.arlingtonfretworks.com/) for some routine tune-ups and maintenance.

I had been struck by the site itself. It sold me on the shop. The proprietor described in extensive, rich detail what he does and how. It was clear this is a guy who is really into what he does. He loves his work.

This was confirmed when I handed over my beloved Line 6 Variax 300. He stared at it for a while, put it on the bench and began taking measurements, sighting along the neck, making “hmm” sounds, hooking it up to various test instruments and immersing himself in the project. Totally absorbed.

I had intended to just drop the guitar off and head home, since I was on the hook to pick up salad at Safeway for dinner. But I stayed more than an hour as he showed me things I would have never seen or realized. (Like many mechanics – and this seems to be obligatory in the field — he spent some time dissing other guitar techs as not really knowing what they are doing.)

The time culminated in a moment when he noticed that the nut (the part of the guitar neck the strings run through) was slightly uneven. “See?” he exclaimed as he wobbled the string and took measures. He then got out a tool – there were many, many tools – and tapped a few times ever so slightly, then moved the string again. He seemed satisfied, but got out another instrument that measures the evenness in the nut. It showed perfect.

The instrument was indicating he had adjusted the nut by 1/1000th of an inch. He was happy. He was proud. I was more than satisfied.

The state of caring about one’s work was explored in great detail in Robert Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a classic in philosophy. Caring means involvement, concern, wanting, pursuing, investing and engaging. It is not really about the work, as there are many, many different kinds of work. It is about the individual, and what motivates him or her.

The opposite of this state is found in a cynical phrase I’ve heard too many times in working with groups and teams – “It’s good enough for government work.”

I’m not sure what the origin of this phrase is, but I know what it means. It means we can all settle for mediocre, minimally acceptable, pedestrian and barely passing. The more we emphasize volume production, the more likely it is we fall into a “good enough” mentality.

How immersed are you in your work? How much do you care? How do you feel when you pack up at the end of the day? Was it good enough for government work? Or was it a product of true caring?

From a leadership perspective, what are the implications for others of you showing up as “good enough” versus being truly into the work?

1 Comment

  1. Your comparison is incorrect as to your belief: “The opposite of this state is found in a cynical phrase I’ve heard too many times in working with groups and teams – “It’s good enough for government work.” …

    I’m not sure what the origin of this phrase is, but I know what it means. It means we can all settle for mediocre, minimally acceptable, pedestrian and barely passing. The more we emphasize volume production, the more likely it is we fall into a “good enough” mentality.”

    Actually, the phrase “Good enough for government work” refers to the stringent standards required by government work during World War II.
    “It was during a time when the likes of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ were made famous as we worked hard to provide our allies and our very own soldiers the ships, planes and weapons to fight and win the war against the Axis powers. When the phrase was used during this period it meant it was good enough to pass very stringent standards. It also meant it was good enough to be used by your son, father or loved one in our country’s fight against the enemy.”

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