Are Things More Reliable than People?

Now its THINGS that are dependable, and People that Need Some Work

Am I kidding myself or are Things More Reliable than People these days?

I grew up in New Jersey we had a pretty cool basement that was divided into three general areas; the bar/tv room, the summer kitchen/laundry room, and the work/storage room.  Back in the work/storage room was the furnace and hot water heater, the fireplace cleanout chute for ashes, and most importantly, my father’s work bench. It was a high counter made out of an old wooden teller counter probably discarded by the bank my father worked for years ago. The top of the counter was strewn with all sorts of “things” and “stuff”.  Door knob parts, fishing reel spokes, hinges, axe heads or tool handles; these I classified as THINGS.  Then there were pieces or metal and wood, and cut bolts and unrecognizable parts that at one time belonged to forgotten THINGS. These I classified as STUFF.

Of course there were also TOOLS. The obligatory vise, an electric bench grinder  (I loved sharpening things just to see the parks fly) and wrenches hanging on the wall behind the bench.

It was important to Dad that we never threw out any of his stuff and certainly none of his things. Generally the tool bench looked a mess. There were coffee cans full of various bolts, mason jars with nails, brads, and screws that might be needed for some future projects, and paint brushes in various stages of  use – from stiff “oops I never cleaned that one” to brushes still in the paper package (no not plastic – that was yet to come).

My father retired when I was still in high school, so he was always home when I came back from school. But at that age I was so much smarter than my dad. Once in a while Dad would go down there with no specific project in mind.  He just sorted nail sizes, organized his tools and things and threw out some “stuff”. He would get ambitious and organize his wrenches by size, put all screw drivers in one drawer and pliers in another. Normally part of the way through this task he would start fixing some old thing and the workbench never got totally organized.

The bench itself was at the back of the basement, on the narrow side, past the furnace and the stairwell.  There were no wall light switches. To get to the bench you sort of walked in the dark lightbulb on stringswinging your arm back and forth feeling for the pull sting from a bare light bulb hanging from the rafter.  This was Dad’s world and little kids were not encouraged to explore this sanctum by themselves. If he asked me to go get him a hammer or some other needed instrument of construction, I would go down there and sort of hold my breath unit the light would prove to me that it was unoccupied and safe. When I was a little kid Dad put an old bar stool there for me to sit on when he putzed.

workbenchbasementIn my mind a house needs a work bench just as house needs a kitchen. A house without a workbench was rather strange to me; Except for Paul Nelson’s house. His dad was the local pediatrician.  No work bench: he had a tool box. I remember it pretty well, it was red and it even had a padlock.  One time Paul and I spied it without the lock. It was full of seemingly new tools. A shiny hammer, matching screwdrivers, a pencil; obviously Doc Nelson could afford to buy new things. He didn’t need to fix stuff and turn it into things.

The only tool box my father had was a wooden one he made to carry tools to the point of a project somewhere other than the work bench. It was a long narrow affair with an old yellow broomstick as a handle.  It was more commonly used to bring tools BACK to the workbench. Tools that he needed for a project he had one of us kids run down to get one at a time, carefully walking in the dark side of the basement cautiously  swinging our arms to turn on the light.

Here in Florida we have no basements and our workbenches, if we have them, are relegated to a tiny corner of the garage. But things don’t break as much these days as they did when we were kids, and if they do break, we certainly can’t fix them at our workbench. In fact, we hardly fix things at all. My father retired to Florida in 1972, the day I left for college.  The work bench was shut down for retirement.

But We Still Fixed Things.

When I was in my early 20’s I bought an old Buick with a V-6 engine. I remember my father in law coming out to listen to the engine making banging noises like she was ready to explode.

“Your pushrods are shot and you probably need to have new rings,” he diagnosed.buick

Within two days we had the entire engine apart, sent the block out to be re-bored, and I bought all new “things” for that engine.  (Rods, or lifters, and valves, – I can’t remember anymore). The point is, we never had to buy a tool. They were all there somewhere on his workbench. The other point is, the engine could be worked on. I could SEE the alternator, the carburetor, the fuel filter, and the radiator hoses.  If I buy a new car today, I don’t even know why I bother to look under the hood before I buy it: Perhaps some ingrained manly thing we think we are supposed to do. I barely recognize an engine much less a carburetor; and fix anything?  Forget it.

I also remember in my twenties the push for zero defects in manufacturing. I knew a little about this as I was a manufacturer’s rep selling raw materials. One of my neighbors actually made a living as a quality control consultant. He had an entire company that taught other companies how to make stuff that didn’t break down. I think his company and those like it helped hasten the demise of the fixit workbench. Now there are things more reliable than people

There was another major engineering field that also was designed to prevent tinkerers from fixin’ stuff.  I don’t know what it was called, but it had something to do with making the outside case that held the thing into an integral part of the thing.  The plastic case around the can opener, for example, all of a sudden was not to just keep it clean and neat looking, but it was in fact part of the can opener. Once you took it apart it was impossible to put back together again. In cars they called it uni-body construction. In can openers, it’s well, cheaper to build it that way. So cheap, in fact, we just toss the old one when it gets too dirty, we retire it and buy a new one.

Keep in mind this didn’t stop Mr. Fixit’s from TRYIN to fix something, it just meant that we took the whole thing apart before we retired and bought a new one.

Things we buy today are pretty reliable, very reliable in fact. Things More Reliable than People:  Cars don’t break down, electronics are solid state (pretty cool all-encompassing term, isn’t it?  SOLD STATE – kind’a tells you right there it’s gonna last forever).

Things that retire quickly are disposable, and things that need adjusting are easy to adjust, and things that we need for a long time, last a long time. In short I think we have this engineering, production and quality control thing down pat.  The problem today, is people. Today, unfortunately, things more reliable than people is the standard.   Most people forget that they have to have to add value to what they do or risk becoming obsolete. I’m not sure how this trend has come about, but I will tell you this:  in the current economy folks are learning pretty quickly that unless they can add value to a proposition that will be become redundant and not needed.

We have to produce ourselves out of the economic mess we find ourselves in. If we do not produce, we are not needed. We will ALL be retiring early!

I see examples of “no production” people all around me:

I’m trying to sell a bank building to client of mine. I call the agent listing a building so I can tour it. I don’t get a call back for FIVE days.

A member of a government board sets up a meeting for a land deal and wants a piece of the deal for being at the meeting – not for a contribution, but for his presence.

A Realtor sends me a client’s name that want to retire to Florida and wants a 20% referral fee – but doesn’t contribute any input to the deal or the relationship – not even a personal introduction (because he doesn’t know the potential client).  BTW – I do not take these kinds of referrals.

Agents that LIST a property but don’t actively try to sell it.

I am told by an acquaintance, “I lost my job.”  But when I ask what they did for the organization, they are hard pressed to explain their function to me or how they contributed to the bottom line.

In the boom-boom times employees could get by with good effort and no results. I relate the story often about the sales person who makes the calls every week, satisfied that he puts in the effort – he does not get the sale mind you, but has put in the effort – and then is surprised when he loses his job for lack of production.

Farmers understand pay for production; managers and support people often do not. Your lawn maintenance guy understands pay for production, the salaried sales clerk often does not. You would think that the commissioned sales people understand production, but many do not.

Want some good news?  The current economic climate is going to groom a very reliable crop of producers – because those that can’t or won’t produce will fall away to the producers. The market itself will create it’s own version of “zero defect” producers, because these will be the ones that survive.


There is no work bench for fixing unreliable people. This corrective work is done in the field. Hopefully before we have to askthe people to retire just like we used to ask the THINGS


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