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How About a New 95:50 Rule?


By Robert Ikenberry

I think we should have a new way of looking at quality.

We don’t have to settle for “just OK,” and we don’t have to go all the way to budget-busting perfection. There is a sweet spot of quality and efficiency in most things. Rather than looking for black or white, we should be looking harder for that “best gray.”

The 80:20 Rule

Most of you have probably heard the old, conventional wisdom of the 80:20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. It essentially says that if one is talking about the best possible results, you can get about 80 percent of the way there with 20 percent of the effort that “perfection” would take.

Pareto Principle
© / Marek Uliasz

The 80:20 rule suggests that 20 percent of the invested effort is responsible for 80 percent of the results obtained.

Another way to look at it is that the last 20 percent keeps getting incrementally harder to improve. Ultimately, it takes 80 percent of the total effort to get thru the last 20 percent.

I don’t know about your practical experience with this in real life, but I’ve been an armchair astronomer since the time when many amateurs ground their own telescope mirrors. Now, if I understood the process properly, figuring a telescope mirror (that is, the process of polishing the surface to remove imperfections and/or modify the curvature to achieve the required shape) definitely took 80 percent of the effort to do the final 20 percent, certainly from the standpoint of how much glass you were taking off the mirror blank.

Craftsmen who put the finish on Steinway pianos probably know a bit about sanding, painting and polishing repeatedly to get to a goal of near perfection. I think they would tell you that the difference between a “commercial” gloss black finish and the endlessly deep, show-every-fingerprint, jet-black, high-gloss finish on a concert piano is the result of lots more effort.

Aspiring for Better

So if the 80:20 rule is true, and if we agree we don’t want to settle for just 80 percent of the best there is, and we’re willing to do at least something more than 20 percent of what it takes to get there, we should aspire for better as a society.

telescope mirror and lenses
© / WestWindGraphics

My experience figuring and polishing a telescope mirror demonstrates the concept that it took 80 percent of the effort to do the final 20 percent, certainly from the standpoint of how much glass you were taking off the mirror blank.

But how much more?

The laws of diminishing returns say that at some point extra effort just isn’t worth it. Where is that? Lots of times specifications seem to say, perfection is the only acceptable result.

White Metal blast requires that all visible rust, debris and paints are removed from a steel surface. And government seems to say public resources like water and air have to be clean to the limits of our detection (which with modern analytical methods is now in the parts per billion or trillion, not merely parts per million).

We often seem to be setting ourselves up to require perfection, even with the gross inefficiencies that last few percent requires.

On the other hand, there are some who say we should just go back to not really caring about it (cleanliness, quality, efficiency, environment, whatever “it” is that we’re talking about), do the 20 percent effort, take the 80 percent result and call it good.

Finding ‘Near Perfection’

I think there’s a practical middle ground. Let’s call it the 95:50 rule.

blast cleaning
© / kimtaro

For just half the effort of perfection, we may very well be able to get 95 percent of it. That sounds like a pretty good bargain.

I think the painting industry was always aware of this and, actually, was ahead of the curve:

Commercial blast cleaning is the equivalent of 80:20 (not quibbling about a few percentage points here), and White Metal blast is practical “perfection” in cleaning steel surfaces.

The need for a more realistic “Near-Perfection” was why Near-White blast cleaning was invented.

Most of the time, even with quality-critical coatings, Near-White is good enough (even though Commercial blast definitely isn’t), and it’s a lot less effort than true White Metal.

So let’s take a lesson from our industry and advocate for a Near-White Metal quality goal in our collective efforts.

Can you think of areas where this approach can improve overall quality or make realistic improvements more attainable?


Robert Ikenberry

Robert Ikenberry, PCS, has been in industrial painting and construction since 1975. Now semi-retired as the Safety Director and Project Manager for California Engineering Contractors, Robert stays busy rehabbing, retrofitting and painting bridges. His documentary on the 1927 Carquinez Bridge was the pilot for National Geographic’s Break it Down and an episode of MegaStructures.



Tagged categories: Bridges; Program/Project Management; Abrasive blasting; Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Surface preparation

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/22/2016, 8:19 AM)

Robert, I appreciate your points - but I have a problem with the blast cleaning example. This is a problem I recently encountered in the field. White Metal, Near-White and Commercial (SP 5, 10 and 6 respectively) all require the cleanliness you described for White Metal: All visible rust, debris and paints must be removed. The only difference between the three is the amount of staining allowed. If there are visible chunks of rust, debris or paint - you don't even have a Commercial blast.

Comment from Robert Ikenberry, (9/22/2016, 12:26 PM)

Tom, you are, of course, exactly right. Sometimes in a blog, brevity is selected over accuracy. Sorry if that was unclear in this case. For any of the blast cleaning levels mentioned, the only contaminants that can remain are staining. Per the standard: "Staining shall be limited to no more than XX% of each square inch of surface area and may consist of light shadows, slight streaks or minor discoloration caused by stains of rust, stains of mill scale or stains of previously applied paint." The XX% of staining allowed: SP-6 = 33%, SP-10 = 5%, SP-5 = 0%

Comment from Bob Dahlstrom, (10/4/2016, 10:04 AM)

Robert, I agree... as technology improves there is no reason why we shouldn't take advantage of it and improve quality. Let's continue to replace human judgement with science.

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