Thursday, March 22, 2012

Shop and Project Hierarchy of Needs

One of the things I’ve been confronted with on many levels lately is that there are some things that are really fundamental before higher levels of function can be maintained. The basics need to be attended to before you can start to think about long range goals, that kind of thing. What I’ve found lately is that the needs for shops and projects are inter-related. And the basic needs seem to be solidly rooted in planning things out well.

I’ll give an example. There have been times when a project really grinds to a halt, because I’m doing several things at once, and I’m getting lost. I’ll get two-thirds of the way through working on Part B before I start to think about how it’s going to interact with Part A, and then I realize that I need to stop what I’m doing with Part B until the an unfinished detail on Part A is completed in some way. In general, it’s because I had a pretty good idea of how everything was supposed to work when I got started, but I didn’t get down to the final specifics in the plan or on the drawing, and I left Part A unfinished until I got to that point. The logic at the time is typically something like: "This is tedious, and I really need to get this project moving, so I’ll tweak it when I get to the point when I need to, so I can keep making progress."

And then I’d get there. And so I’d be forced to leave a mostly-completed Part B on the table saw while I went back to the bench to fix something about Part A, so I could tweak the details that would allow Part B to finally mate with Part A. Sometimes the list of incomplete sections was 3 or 4 things, and I’d be chasing my tail all over the shop, with all of them in play, but none of them in a state that resembled ‘done.’ And then the project starts to develop a blast radius as I look for unoccupied spaces to ‘park’ my half-finished sub-assemblies while I work on others.

Another variation of the need to organize a project shows up as I would be slowly but steadily moving through a process on a part. I’d be sure to get the details figured out before I got to the next piece, but only just before. So as a result, three things were happening. I was moving more slowly, because with half of my brain engaged in the planning process, I wasn’t fully focused on the part I was working on. And in the end, that part wouldn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. And once that was done, I'd move on to the next step, and realize that the plan I'd formulated while working on something else was flawed in some way. I think the phrase I used at the time was parallel processing. It slowed me down, and kept me from doing a good job of either planning or executing my projects.

This has been happening with the book I’ve been working on, too. There were a lot of bits, pieces, and chunks that I knew I wanted to fit in. And the outline had places for all of it. But some of it was left unresolved, and so I would write, and revise, and write, and revise... and got lost. I wasn’t really sure where the thing was going. I had to start all over again, with a clear, refined idea of what I wanted the whole thing to look like, what I really wanted to say, and how I wanted to get there. And I started filling in the details. And all of a sudden, it all started to come together.

What I’ve discovered over time is that paying attention to the details early on pays off in a lot of ways that I could have foreseen, and a lot of other, less obvious ways, too. Once I know what the details are, I can make a plan.

With a finished, detailed plan, I can put together a finished, detailed procedure to make things happen. This is logical, I know.

With a detailed, finished procedure to follow, I can move systematically through the work that I have to do. This is also logical.

What didn’t necessarily follow, for me, is that with that procedural, pre-planned work, I had a clear head. The part of my mind that was normally preoccupied with what came next, was free to look around, and see how my shop was working, or wasn’t.

I could see the trail of tools that were being left behind. You see, when I was in the habit of almost-finishing things, part of that unfinished procedure was putting everything away when I was done. The tools were left with the part that I was working on, since I knew I was going to need them as soon as I went back. I'd gotten into the bad habit of leaving my tools lying where I'd used them.

I could see the mess that I was making, and hadn’t normally been focused on. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the mess before, it was just that I hadn't finished and gotten to the cleaning up part, yet. With discrete steps, and defined things to do, I had the head space to complete that task, put the tool away, and clean up the mess I’d just made, to get ready for the next step. And if anything in the shop layout wasn't really functioning well, like tool storage, I could make a note of it, and fix it later.

And then it grew. Once I knew where my stopping and starting points were for the day, I had the time to sit down, log everything I’d gotten done, what worked and didn’t, and think about how things were going overall. I could think about a higher level of perspective, other than a cascading pile of “Crap... this isn’t done... because that’s not done, because I haven’t figured that out yet... and I can’t even get to that right now because the first thing is in the way...” My head was clear to get the job done to a higher standard, and with that clear head, I was more aware of what was going on around me in the shop.

I had the head-space to look around and realize that maybe I should implement an end of the day on Friday clean-up. Sweep the entire shop, once a week... what a concept. Find all of the little things I forgot, the circles I didn’t close, and make sure they get closed. I can clean up some of those filthy table saw blades for once. Or put a coat of wax on the cast iron surfaces in the machine room.

Working according to plan has reaped a lot of unexpected benefits, not the least of which is relief that comes from working in a shop that no longer looks like Tornado James has been through it.

I’ve heard people say that most shops have a natural level of ‘patina.’ There’s dust and detritus about, and not everything is really 100%. I used to think that any shop that looked a little too clean was clearly the work of someone who was anal retentive or obsessive compulsive. What I’m starting to understand is that maybe it’s more a question of being organized about the work, not rushing, and not getting stuck in a reactive cycle.

A cleaner shop is a safer shop. Tools are easier to find when they’re put away. Projects are less likely to have dings and dents when they’re not literally in the path of progress. And I have a clear head.

All from finishing that stupid drawing, and writing up a detailed procedure.

Who knew?

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