Generation Why: Let’s Sweat the Small Stuff

Occasionally, I publish a column in my hometown newspaper, The Salem Leader, called “Generation Why”. Usually I get something in there about once a month. Here’s a column I wrote recently that pertains to this blog:

The Salem Leader
Generation Why
Justin Harter
August 2010

Let’s Try to Sweat the Small Stuff

Do you remember the time you first used a cordless phone? Whether you had always used a landline phone and then bought a cordless home phone or went straight to a cell phone, you probably thought, “Oh cool, this is neat!” You at least had to think it was nice to be able to get up and walk around while you were on the phone. For many of you reading this, you can probably go back to a time when you first used a washer and dryer, microwave, escalator or any other seemingly mundane modern doo-dad. Whatever it was, it was a nicely improved experience over the previous experience that involved a seemingly small detail — like removing a cord or reinventing the staircase.

As an example, I recently bought a small bookcase. I had recently walked into a friend’s house that smelled a lot like apple and cinnamon candles and I realized it was because they had a nice candle sitting next to the front door. However, my home has a door that opens up into a small foyer area and not the living room, so I needed something small to sit along the foyer wall so I could achieve a similar effect, hence, the bookcase.

I measured out my spot and the dimensions of the bookcase appeared to be what I needed. However, once I assembled the first few pieces (after reading the absolutely horrible directions), I realized the bookcase wouldn’t work. First of all, the lousy instructions with crummy pictures left a bad taste in my mouth. They used a triangle to indicate which way the varnished sides of the wood should face. Wouldn’t it be easier to just draw a shelf with one side white and the other sides colored black to indicate varnish? Second, the bookcase wouldn’t fit flush against the wall like I hoped it would and the “lips” around the edges made the shelf longer than the space I had to fill.

So, I disassembled it, packed it back up and it took it back to the store. When the cashier asked me if anything was wrong with it I said, “Yeah, it’s a horrible piece of crap.” She just smiled and nodded as if to say, “I get that a lot.”

I told a friend about this and he asked, “You mean you took it back because the instructions had bad drawings and it didn’t fit precisely against the wall?” “Of course I did,” I replied.

I had to explain that I think about a lot of the small stuff in modern products because virtually everything annoys me in some way. I’d rather have nothing at all than a crappy product that bothers me to not end.

Most folks probably don’t even think about small details. If you run a restaurant, do you chill the plates you serve salads on? Do you heat up the plates you serve the entrees on? It makes a difference. The next time you order a side of broccoli, you’ll find it tastes better longer if you have a plate that’s sat in an oven for a few minutes because it helps prevent the broccoli (or any other food) from cooling down too quickly.

If you run a grocery store, when was the last time you greased the wheels of your carts? You don’t even have to test each cart — just notice when a cart is being pushed in your store that rattles or squeaks. Then, go get another cart and bring it to the customer wherever they are and help them unload and reload their items. You can take the bad cart to the back of the store and oil it with a can of WD-40. No one likes a loud cart.

Ever notice how Post-It notes curl when you pull them off the stack? When you yank up on a Post-It, the note ends up with a slight bow shape. That, in turn, prevents the note from sitting flat against a computer monitor and causes it to curl around out of view. That’s annoying and diminishes the use for a Post-It.

It’s the seemingly petty and small details that really makes for a great product, service or employee. If you work for someone else, even if it’s at a fast food restaurant, focus a little more on the small details. If you’re putting together a hamburger, make sure the cheese is hot and the buns line up and aren’t sliding off one end.

We, as a society, are really good at the big stuff. We can figure out how to do really groundbreaking and major projects, but it’s the small stuff that makes them easy and fun to use, which is what ultimately matters. The small stuff is usually really simple, too. Just like removing the cord from a phone gives you a whole new appreciation for the phone, removing seemingly mundane and small obstacles can create a lot more love for a lot more in life.

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