Is 99.9% good enough?

I’ve been working in the construction industry for a grand total of two weeks, and while this may not seem like much, it has already taught me a valuable lesson that can be applied to almost any situation: the concept of doing everything 100%.

As children growing up, we are bombarded with reminders to finish what we started and to see our chores all the way through before starting something else, and yet it is always so hard to finish things in their entirety! It seems to be so difficult to keep a room perfectly clean because there will always be a stray sock somewhere and so we conclude that having our room mostly clean, maybe even 99.9% clean, is the best we can humanly achieve because perfection is simply an unattainable goal.

In school, we strive for 100%, but are ecstatic with anything over 90% (in university, I was frequently ecstatic just to get a passing grade)! Besides, unless it’s math, marking is subjective and it is humanly impossible to achieve a 100% score! Even if it is math, it’s so easy to have a careless mistake somewhere in the midst of your calculations, that we are willing to settle for a 95%. We often joke about some students’ parents who, in response to their child receiving a 95% would demand to know why they couldn’t achieve 100%! And yet, despite the seeming impossibility of achieving 100%, is there something we’re missing and is it possible that anything less than 100% is simply not acceptable?

For many years in the construction industry, injuries and fatalities were considered an inevitable risk and therefore, such tragedies were most unfortunately accepted by society. While there are strict rules and regulations in place (enforced by organizations like OSHA in the United States and the WSIB in Canada), to hold a company accountable for injuries and deaths is accepted by law so long as they are compliant with all applicable rules. So, if a company has a 99.9% safety record, is it acceptable? While many would argue that 99.9% is extremely good, in my company of just over 2000 people, it would mean that at least 2 people would be killed or seriously injured every year. The same record applied to the automobile industry would imply that it would be acceptable if over 5,000 cars sold in the United States every year could have life-threatening problems. Applied to the aviation industry, it would imply that it would be acceptable if at least one plane crashed every day when landing or taking off at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. In medicine, it would mean that over 300 million prescriptions in the United States (roughly equal to the American population) would be incorrectly fulfilled every single year.

Clearly, in many different industries, 99.9%, no matter how impressive it is, is simply not good enough. So, as a field supervisor with Mortenson Construction, I take my responsibility to perform quality control and assurance very seriously. When I test to make sure that each and every one of the bolts holding a rotor in place is correctly tensioned, 100% is the only acceptable standard, and the same should apply to everything else that we do when the safety of other people is at stake. Furthermore, to ensure our 100% commitment to quality, most work is often checked and re-checked by at least two different people to ensure proper scrutiny.

Working in construction, for me, has caused a paradigm shift in my thinking, whereby I now stand by my commitment to do a good job because failure is simply not an option. If we can apply this same principle to everything we do in life, than we cannot fail. Every catastrophe can be avoided if we are diligent, if we take the time before we act to consider possible consequences of our actions, and if we take the proper steps to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

Here’s a great clip that really exemplifies what it means to be the best you can be and to give it your 100%: