Home improvement and Swiss cheese

"It happens!" everyone says, but this is no more than evasion and denial of an unprofessional and mediocre organizational culture.

"It's complicated" 370 (photo credit: Amit Bar-Yosef)
"It's complicated" 370
(photo credit: Amit Bar-Yosef)
The contractor proudly showed me the newly covered bathroom walls. I looked, blinked, rubbed my eyes, and said: “These are not our tiles!” I had placed an order via email, mistakenly asking for “the Spanish tile,” when we had in fact chosen the Italian.
I felt like Tim the tool man from the 1990s US TV series Home Improvement, when he had totaled his wife Jill’s car by dropping a metal beam on it.
Why did this happen? The saleswoman could have asked for a more explicit order and might have remembered that we liked the Italian. I should have inspected the shipment upon arrival at the site, and of course I should have been there during the beginning of the application.
I had made one little mistake, and all other lines of defense failed to save me.
The “Swiss cheese model,” invented by James T. Reason, perfectly describes my tile mishap.
According to the model, the various layers of defense are represented by slices of cheese, stacked up to create a barrier preventing failure. The holes represent weaknesses in each layer. Failure happens when all holes happen to align, and an error vector manages to penetrate from side to side.
If we make sure to have enough layers, and reduce the number and size of the holes, we can mitigate the chances of failure.
I was involved in four renovations during the past few years, including making accessibility adaptations for elderly relatives.
My experiences verified Murphy’s Law, that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” and made it seem as if a coincidental streak of bad luck was always at play. “It happens!” everyone says, but this is no more than evasion and denial of an unprofessional and mediocre organizational culture.
There are not enough slices of cheese, and they have very big holes in them.
During our last project, there were multiple mistakes in almost every field. Wrong fixtures were delivered, prepaid accessories were suddenly out of stock, and appliances were missing screws and sealing washers.
One door was missing a window and the other couldn’t be locked, so a quality inspector was sent. “No wonder I am the hardest working employee in the company,” he complained, after discovering that the lock mechanism had been installed incorrectly, by an employee who had recently immigrated to Israel, and was studying Hebrew so he could find work in his profession – accounting.
I also pointed out to him that the doors were transported in cheap wrapping, resulting in scratches and dents. By investing in better wrapping materials, they could save money on customer complaints, repairs and replacements.
It seems that companies do not understand that doubling their investment in prevention efforts could triple and quadruple savings in dealing with failure.
The tendency to invest in crisis management instead of quality control is a huge mistake.
Some quality costs are direct, such as replacing defective products, additional shipping and the labor involved in reinstalling and fixing. But, there are many secondary, intangible, costs, such as the time and effort allocated to dealing with customer complaints.
Above all, there is the risk of losing customers and future business.
Renovating is a complicated project, involving multidisciplinary expertise, and should be overseen by professionals, especially when surrounded by so much incompetence.
More cheese, fewer holes.
I once met with Howard J. Morris, who wrote and produced on Home Improvement.
“Can I call you if I have an idea for an episode?” I asked. “Sure,” he answered, “and I’ll call you if I have tips on how to fly your helicopter.”
He was right. Expertise is critical, and “flying by the seat of your pants” doesn’t work. This is true for flying helicopters, producing TV shows, and renovating.
Yael Steinberger is director of the interior design program at a Jerusalem-based college.
When I first met her five years ago, she demonstrated her magical touch by producing a brilliant design which maximized the use of limited space. Then last year, upon hearing that her new client was a Holocaust survivor in his 90s, she refused to be paid, and skillfully planned a unique, cozy and accessible kitchen.
I didn’t hire Yael this time, because it was only a small bathroom project, but looking back, she may have prevented my tile mistake, and cost less than I ultimately ended up paying for replacing the tiles.
Every project in Israel begins with “price proposals” (“hatza’at mechir”) from service providers. The most common practice is choosing the cheapest, which is a huge mistake, because price alone is far from being the most critical consideration.
Choosing someone without the appropriate credentials may lead to spending more money, and even to losing all your money spent on the project.
Red Adair (1915-2004), the American oil well firefighter, summed it up nicely: “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”
Important questions to ask about a potential contractor are: Is he trustworthy? Does he finish on time? Does he answer the phone and call back when you leave messages?
Itzik and Avi Hizkia have been our contractors for the past few projects. Their valuable qualities are reliability and vast experience, and unlike many contractors, they do the job themselves. They always answer my calls.
Quality and service are far more important than price.
Speaking of service, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Maly Moshkovitz from Achim Levy, who has been attentive, helpful and flexible time and time again.
When making accessibility changes for someone with disabilities, it is critical to consult with accessibility experts. It is a field where intuition simply doesn’t suffice.
Visit the site daily, for every day is another slice of cheese.
Constructing or renovating is one of the most stressful and frustrating projects one can undertake. How tragic it is if couples split up when the project derails or they encounter insurmountable clashes over the color of bathroom tiles.
Renovation takes a lot of patience and concessions.
The last thing I want is to get involved in another home improvement project, but if I must, I would implement the lessons I have learned, call my trusty renovation pros, and make sure my Swiss cheese is piled high and solid.
The writer is a former pilot in the IAF, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and International Project Manager at CockpitRM.