Pyramids, Concrete Walls, and Excellence

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A Fine Line by Greg Henderson

50 years before Columbus discovered America – at an incredible altitude of nearly 8,000 feet – Machu Picchu was constructed by unlicensed Peruvians. The stone construction project, with several walls, still stands built without concrete. Over 500 years ago!

The concrete blocks that form a privacy wall across my backyard was constructed 25 years ago; really, with concrete. It’s about to fall over.

Concrete walls are utilitarian in most cases. They have a purpose above stylish aesthetics. Mine, a privacy wall, is 70 feet long. At five feet high it has been in place for 20 years. It’s moving. I have an important job ahead of me to stop the movement before it falls over onto my neighbor’s driveway. There are four or five options that have crossed my mind, all require heavy work and two are fairly costly. Better construction process in the beginning would have made today’s repairs unnecessary. But lo, we live in a different era.

The poor construction of my wall is not alone. Everywhere shoddy workmanship has become endemic. With speed and low costs holding rank over quality we have allowed these things to evolve. A good amount of the blame lies with us, the consumer.

There are economic realities to the mediocrity of our consumer choices. “The best house, the best car, the best appliance, the best food, costs more than I can afford. I must buy the least expensive item.” If you’ve made this comment, out loud or to yourself, you are not alone.

The thought processes of consumers will often run counter to the value/cost equation. As product buyers we want to get the most value for the least cost. It might sound like a good personal cash flow plan, but the reality includes the actual cost of production by the manufacturers of the items being purchased. Higher value products normally have a higher cost of production. That means they will be more expensive than excellent products will be. That includes construction of concrete walls.

If my leaning wall of concrete blocks was built by more skilled laborers being paid higher wages and supervised by a more experienced leader with higher skills and more understanding of design requirements – engineering, etc. – the construction of the wall would probably have been more than it is. That long sentence essentially says – you get what you pay for and accept the consequences.

The motivation of Inca builders of Mach Picchu five hundred years ago was likely driven by other than excellent wages. Leadership and human resource regulations were without the enforcement of today. Harsh conditions and physical threats might have been present as they were in other parts of the world in ancient times as the stories of pyramid building in Egypt have reported.

Consumers are the real drivers of quality. If a product is not equal to the value customers expect of the item, it will not be sold. Businesses cannot exist unless the products meet customer expectations. When customers accept low quality products or services the message they send is that low quality products or poor service is acceptable. The quality of final purchases may range from “barely acceptable” to “highly superior” with a corresponding range in cost to consumers. That should be accepted.

As the quality and price go up the available cash of consumers must also rise. The dynamics of these details spread across the spectrums of economy, society, personal motivations, psychology, resource availability, and urgency of need. My wall is falling down because something in this mix was less than the buyer should have expected.

No wonder the answer to the question of why is so often, “That’s just the way it is.” We accept those things we don’t understand, then make a temporary fix when sustainability might have been our goal, pretending our purchase was intentional. Avoiding mediocrity is an individual responsibility. Each of us should resolve to elevate the quality of what we do until it becomes our habit.

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