“99 Out of 100” or “The Last 1%”

While raking leaves the other day, I was thinking about “the last one percent.”

Raking leaves, like much physical labor, is all about the most effective use of movement. In a sense, you could say it's about minimizing movement--getting the work done as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort. Engaged in this task, you think about things like the optimal pattern in which to rake the yard, how many times you bend to fill each wheelbarrow, etc.

So, in the process of minimizing my movements, I began thinking about “the last one percent,” or more informally, “just how clean does the yard need to be?” Do I pick up every single leaf? Do I pick up 90% of the leaves? 95%? 99%?

Of course, getting every leaf would only be possible through extraordinary (and foolish) effort … just as removing every drug dealer from the streets would be possible only at astronomical cost of money and human life ... just as guaranteeing that no person would ever again die in a car accident would make automobiles impossibly expensive and impractical to drive … choose any example you'd like. One hundred percent is the limit--the conceptual goal never to be realized but only to be approached. How close one gets depends on the cost one is willing to pay. This seems to be the way that the natural world operates.

However, I can think of situations when this “principle” is turned on its head. For example, in my business, housing, it seems that the last 1% of construction cost is where you really add the most perceived customer value. You can build a great building, with strong architectural integrity, intelligent planning, etc., but if the surface finishes in the kitchens and bathrooms aren't appealing, no one will buy. The other 99% of the building has to be built … there's no way around it. But without that last 1% of quality, the other 99% becomes much less valuable.

Another counter-example … something I've written about before, “the bottom of the bowl.” When you eat a salad, or a bowl of pasta, or whatever, the stuff that collects in the bottom is the best tasting stuff.

You hear the aphorisms, “god is in the details” or “the devil is in the details,” imploring us to be detail-oriented. You taste the stuff at the bottom of the bowl and realize how good it is. And yet nature and human social structures seem to operate in a way that makes attaining the last 1% impractical, even foolish.

I must think about this more … I can't yet reconcile these two interpretations.