One of the most fashionable catch phrases sweeping the globe is the pareto principle which, in the modern productivity oriented formulation, that you get 80% of the benefit from 20% of the work that you put in. There are other of this type of theme such as the first 90% of the work takes 90% of the time, the last 10% of the work also takes 90% of the time which try to convey a similar point. Often this criticism is well founded, we can get the majority of the benefit from a minority of the work. But, this doesn’t answer the question as to whether the remaining 10-20% of the work is beneficial to do.
Recently I’ve been taking up manufacturing leather based items at home. It’s a hobby for me, one that I picked up in the many sets of restrictions we’ve experienced in Australia and I must say I’ve enjoyed the overall experience. The interesting thing about craftsmanship and designing is that, from an aesthetic and a quality perspective, the last 10% is all that really matters.
The bulk of leatherworking can be thought of as cutting out shapes, glueing them together and then stitching them together. If you can do these three activities you’ll be able to produce a perfectly functional item. But, the item itself will look ugly as sin and you probably wouldn’t want to be seen dead with it. It’s that final 10%, the final attention to detail which is what makes an item transcend mere functionality and become craftsmanship.
It’s the edging, the attention to clean lines, the skiving to reduce thickness in appropriate placed, the evenness and straightness of stitch lines, the quality of the leather used. These all combine to make a product which whilst functionally the same is many multiples better than the bare bones alternatives.
I have the sneaking suspicion that this trend holds true throughout a lot, but not all, fields. In software development for example you can often mock up something quick and dirty relatively quickly. This is what is known as the “Minimum Viable Product” or MVP. These MVPs are great for validating that some initial demand exists but they’re often incomplete, they have sharp edges and users often cut themselves trying to figure out how to do something. They’re not polished as they haven’t done the final 10%.
In furniture it’s the same, think about the difference in quality between an Ikea table and a hand crafted solid wood piece of furniture. One of them is of much higher quality and more enjoyable. But they both serve the same function.
In architecture the same, prefab panels will get you a shell but masonry gets you a palace.
In food it’s the little details, texture, smell, presentation, that helps a dish transcend the mere ingredients that it contains. There’s a reason we don’t boil everything in water in a single pot.
In writing it’s the editing and rewriting process that makes a book truly good. Content wise, nothing might change but the end result is a vastly different product.
In short, in all domains which have a subjective quality component the final 10% of the work is necessarily to develop something that people love. The first 80-90% will get you something functional but you shouldn’t be surprised when someone else who has put in the final 10% is able to produce something which transcends your preliminary efforts.
The last ten percent is so precious because it is so hard. Instinctually we all seem to understand this, when something is just so much better than the competition we’re willing to pay a premium for it and the competition is not measured in terms of individual isolated features but instead in the cohesiveness of the overall experience. One reason in particular why Apple is one of the most valued companies in the world is the cohesiveness and quality of their overall experience compared to the competition.
In my personal life I’ve been a disciple of the 80% cult for a long time, smugly touting the pareto principle and half assing all manner of things. I’ve left a lot of sharp corners in my work, particularly in places where I knew people wouldn’t look.
Leatherworking is teaching me that the final 10% has a lot more value than I initially assumed. When I look at the differences between my early pieces and what I’m able to produce now the difference is enormous. I’m still not there yet in terms of quality but my skill level improves with each project that I’m taking on.
The caveat of course is understanding where it’s okay to stop at 80%. This is judgement. Something I’m still working on.