Processes

The time I spent fixing my eyeglasses last night allowed me to fixate on one of my weaknesses this morning.

No, not my eyesight. My vision is actually very good. I don’t require glasses to drive…I’m just a bit nearsighted. I have a set of prescription sunglasses as well and when it came time to attack tiny screws with tiny, shallow grooves last night, I could see my work much better with my unaided eye than with vision that was slightly sharper, but also darker.

The weakness in question is my general approach to problem-solving. I’m prejudiced towards creating a process that solves the problem efficiently, as opposed to solving the problem itself the quickest way possible.

Case in point: one of the earpieces on my glasses broke off so I had to remove and replace it with a not-broken-earpiece taken from an identical pair of vintage frames I bought on eBay. When I tried them on, I realized that I needed to replace the “good” one as well, because after several years of wear, it was bent at a different angle and made the glasses sit all lopsided on my face.

The first earpiece went on quickly. The second was giving me lots of trouble. Two sets of holes need to line up properly, it’s hard to keep control of this tiny screw without sending it flying off, and even when you’ve got everything right, once you try to apply some torque and downward pressure to get the threads to engage, the screw wants to pop out entirely as if it has its own agenda.

After ten minutes of failure, I leaned back and tried to think of a better process. Like, what if I:

  1. Insert a needle through the hole to hold the earpiece in position and keep the holes lined up;
  2. Tear a little strip of gaffer’s tape, spindle it on the pin, wrap it around the works;
  3. Pull out the pin, leaving the earpiece held in place with the tape;
  4. Insert screw into the perfectly-aligned hole and turn until the threads engage;
  5. Carefully peel away the tape;
  6. Fully tighten the screw.

?

I needed to accept, however, that the current process wasn’t wrong…it was just inefficient. It relied on trial and error; the missing ingredient that guaranteed a successful outcome was simply Patience. Once I reflected on this, and accepted that fixing my glasses was going to be a Meditative Act, it seemed to come together with much more quickly. I let go of the frustration of Something Not Working and focused instead on the understanding that this process Will Definitely Work Eventually If I Stick To It.

And! I didn’t let myself get sidetracked by a whole new project: “Develop an efficient method for putting a screw in a pair of eyeglasses.” This Wonderful New Process might have allowed me to get that screw into place much more quickly…but how much time would I have wasted getting the process right?

I shall continue to reflect on this. Once again I’m reminded of the importance of understanding the actual goal of any endeavor. What did I hope to get out of this? Well, I guess I just wanted to have a pair of eyeglasses that weren’t being held together by tape. Given that I didn’t intend to fix eyeglasses for a living — hell, I didn’t even have to do the other side of these frames — there was no added benefit to developing a foolproof and efficient process.

“What do you want?” It’s a powerful a question. Not knowing the answer — or, worse, forgetting what it was — is a major cause of pain.

This kind of mistake prevented me from having these things fixed a week ago, in fact. When my glasses broke, and the replacement frames came in the mail, my original plan was to pop the lenses out of the old ones and pop them into the new ones. But wow: the shop that made the old ones have heated and stretched the rims a little to get ’em in. I damn-near broke my thumbs trying to apply enough pressure to get the final corner of these plastic lenses to snap into place.

Great, fine, awesome! Now I need to take these back to the original shop and have a pro do it for me!

Then I discovered that they were closed (for renovations or for good; I couldn’t tell). Now I had a NEW problem to solve: finding a new eyeglass shop, and hope they’d be willing to just snap in a set of lenses. Would they make me have an in-house eye exam and have new lenses made? Crap. SO many variables to navigate…and without any real promise of success, either.

Then I realized that I’d lost sight of the goal, which was simply “have a pair of eyeglasses whose earpieces aren’t broken.” The hinges on the old frames were just fine. Once I saw the obvious solution to the real problem, I had what I wanted in less than a half an hour.

This sort of thing is often on my mind as I evaluate hardware and software. Is a maker so entranced by a manufacturing process or a style of interface that they aren’t paying enough attention to the kind of experience they’re delivering to the user?

Results are always more important than the processes that got you there (unless your chosen Process attracts the attention of law enforcement and/or a war crimes tribunal).