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Attention to Detail
November , 2014
by William P. Meyers

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A lot of things sound good as generalizations, but when you start applying them to the real world, it gets complicated.

Consider paying attention to detail. Being a detail-oriented person is usually a plus when applying for a job. When there are flaws in products we buy, or when a service is inadequate, we fault a lack of attention to detail. We don't like sloppy. Most of us try to not be sloppy. The point is most of us have to try to pay attention to detail. In repetitive jobs that can become mind-numbing.

There are people who just naturally pay a lot of attention to detail. But if they go too far in that direction, we label them as obsessive-compulsive. These people may be good or not so good at doing things, depending on exactly what kinds of things need that level of detail.

Consider the practice of retail stores known as "fronting." If you are one of the rare citizens who has never worked retail, fronting is the process of lining up the products, cans or boxes or whatever, in neat rows at the front of the shelf. Apparently this encourages people to buy things. When an item, or store aisle, is not fronted, it gives a store a run-down look. So clerks spend considerable time fronting the products, in addition to restocking.

For fronting purposes there are three types of employees: messy employees who front badly (and often nevertheless slowly), good employees who front well and reasonably rapidly, and employees who pay too much attention to detail.

Perfect fronting is the natural goal of those obsessing on details. Have the items been lined up to within a millimeter of perfection? Well, why not shoot for a tenth of a millimeter? Why not a hundredth? Are they perfect? Why not start the whole process all over again, just to be sure? In the meantime, all the other things needing to be done in a store, including fronting all the other shelves, don't get done.

At some point in the real world you have to decide on an acceptable error rate. Otherwise everything takes too long to be practical. Acceptable error rates vary greatly across and within industries, and even within items. No one wants an obvious scratch on the exterior paint or glass of a new car. But no one cares if the muffler got scratched when it was installed.

Most kids get this intuitively when struggling with parental expectations for school grades. Spend all your time studying and you might get an A+, but by dropping down to an A- or a B or C, you can have time for other things.

Failure to pay attention to detail can have dire consequences. In the rush to provide medical care, failure to review records can lead to tragic consequences. In cars we know that failure to get the details right on ignition keys, brakes and airbag systems can lead to deaths. On highways we are highly dependent on everyone else paying attention, at least enough to stay within the lines when hurling past us at combined speeds of 120 mph and more.

Business experience, of workers, managers, and owners, is largely a matter of learning how much attention to detail need to be paid to different aspects of the business.

There is another thing to worry about, even when paying attention to detail is in the helpful to harmless range. It should not impinge too much on attention to strategy, priorities, and the bigger questions of life. The obsessive-compulsive computer programmer may be working on a project, or an aspect of a project, that is useless. The big picture is important. The resources of the world are limited.

Also, while you are just following orders, trying to pay enough attention to detail and yet work fast enough to keep your job, someone else is plotting to grab your share of the pie, if they have not already.

In our highly class stratified society workers are told to pay attention to detail and let the bosses (political and economic) worry about the big picture.That is why we are in such trouble today. During the heyday of American imperialism (roughly 1940 to 1970) most workers who did what they were told for 8 hours a day, five days a week, had enough money to enjoy the rest of their time. That is no longer true. So after perhaps a hundred years of struggle before 1940, and 30 years of prosperity, we now live in an era of precarious existence.

In this era the circus never stops, so the owners don't even have to throw more than crumbs of bread to the working class. The intellectual worker has become an increasingly rare thing in the 21st century. Enough propaganda is thrown into the Internet &TV entertainment mix to keep most workers from seeing the big picture.

Details can add up to big pictures. Darwin was a detail-oriented guy, and the details pointed him to the fact that life is ancient and evolved over time. But in America apparently half the population wants to engage in wishful thinking, and ignores the vast store of details that prove evolution by natural selection is the right big picture to work within.

So do pay attention to detail, to the degree appropriate to the task at hand. But also use some free time to make sure you are not living your life based on false big-picture ideas.

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