Making a good thing better

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How do you make a good thing better? How do you use creativity and technology to solve problems? 


image credit: CreationSwap user Cody Jensen

Know what you’re good at.

Many people are trying to be all things to all people. You can’t really accomplish that goal. And you won’t really find a client base that wants that, even though they may clamor as though they do. People want to be involved with a product or a group that is somehow different and that meets a need that they have.

When I first started making guitars in 1973 people noticed that they were easy to play compared to other guitars. It was an unplanned, innocent improvement on my part, but as time went on I realized I had an innate ability to understand how that part of a guitar works. And so I focused on it until I satisfied even my own hopes and dreams about it. Sounds like a normal plan, unless you understand that the goal of any instrument maker is to build the best sounding guitar, which I decided not to chase after. My guitars sounded fine, (good enough) and people seemed to like them, at least enough for me to sell those I was making. But even those who didn’t like our particular sound admitted that my guitars played better than they’d ever experienced. For those folks, their thought was, “If only the Taylor guitar sounded the way I liked a guitar to sound, I’d buy it.” You see they liked the playability of the guitar and wanted to be a part of the Taylor family but something we didn’t offer kept them away. Well, I couldn’t accommodate them. Did that mean they didn’t play guitar? Of course not, they played, they just didn’t buy a Taylor.

I have to ask, will someone not have a relationship with Jesus if your church doesn’t offer the exact kind of experience they think they require? I don’t think God set things up to be that fragile. Perhaps you’re an incredible teaching pastor and people have flocked in, hungry for teaching. So you surround yourself with staff of all other talents because you have the teaching covered. What if you focused more on teaching? Didn’t people come for that? Are you trying to be a church that covers every single base as well as the next guy, even though those aren’t your talents? What if you hired more great teachers instead? Just a thought….  Back to guitars.

Anyway, we kept our focus on what I set out to do and 25 years later, reached the goal, once and for all, on the playability feature of our guitars. I’ll talk more about that journey as we go. But we really, totally, accomplished it. Well, that goal was done, so I began to focus on sound. Guitar players noticed the change in sound, and the group of Taylor Guitar lovers has grown and is growing from that effort.  I believe that when the history books are done being written we stand a good chance of being credited with raising the bar on sound as well. Why? Because we focused on our first goal until we accomplished it, leaving room and energy to then move on to another goal. I truly believe that we may not have reached either without knowing what we were good at and focusing on that, leaving other goals as lesser for a period of time.

Be a “Tweak-head.”

I’m always tweaking and adjusting what we already have, trying not to start over, but improving on our strengths. If you know what you’re good at, and focus on it, you can tweak it, improve it, become an expert at it; all based on the enthusiasm you had at the onset. Start with a burning idea, see some fruit from it, and then work to make it become real in a larger, more effective way.

For me, I was good at making guitars that played better, as I stated earlier. Having an innate understanding got me 90% of the way there, surpassing most people in the business. How could I surpass them so easily on this one feature?  Because they were ‘doing it’ but not really paying attention to it. I was paying attention, focusing on an area of my craft that I felt I could improve. I was doing it on purpose. This is where tweaking comes in. Strive toward constant improvement and increased expertise on a subject. The last 10% that I needed to learn, and nobody had ever addressed,  took 24 of the 25 years required to reach the ultimate goal, (I’m in my 30th year as I write) but all along the way I made progress. All along the way I was given the position by the customers of being the expert on easy-playing guitars, even though I felt I hadn’t really accomplished my goals on the matter. I understood the basics, but I kept homing in deeper and deeper to see how the nuances affected the whole. It’s the subtle nuances, the tiny details that make the difference.

Eventually we redesigned how a neck attached to a guitar body. We had to do this to achieve the improvements in the finer details that were so hard to control. I grew to know that guitars, as I’d inherited them, were designed by people long ago to fit their technology and ability. I was making guitars in their tradition, simply trying to do a better job than they did, but my skill was not really better than theirs; they were top-notch craftsmen. They had experienced the same shortcomings with their guitars as I had, but they had no hope of solving the problem because their technology regulated how they accomplish the task. The guitar was already designed, as an instrument, and sweeping changes to it were not allowed for my ancestors, or for me. The changes would have to be invisible to the user, leaving a guitar…..a guitar.

It was obvious that the tweaking had gone its distance and some invention was needed.

Never underestimate the power of invention.

I assure you, there will be times in your life that an invention, a new idea, or a new solution will be absolutely necessary to enable you to go forward with continued success. Sometimes they are necessary just to survive, but certainly we want more than survival.

It seems like an elementary thought to say that you don’t know what you don’t know. But it’s true. It blows my mind to meet so many people that think that because they don’t know it, it doesn’t exist, or it can’t exist. Why do so many people spend so much of their lives not being able to create new, fresh solutions to problems? I think it’s because they refuse opportunities along the path of their work-a-day world that would have lead to something. These opportunities are blown off as something that has no place for us, or a waste of time, or too risky. Perhaps you’re waiting for some other person to prove the idea before you jump in.

I have a little method that I use to help aid in creating Taylor Guitars’ new, bright future. That is, I buy into new technology, or ideas, on a small and harmless basis for a single purpose. The thinking is, if this machine or idea only did this one little job and never leads to anything else of value, I would not have wasted any money. But the upside is, if it does lead to something else, I’ll learn the technology a little at a time on a risk free basis, because anything I achieve beyond what I set out to do is an extra benefit.

Let me tell you about lasers. We did exactly what I explained above when I spent $28,000 on my first little laser many years ago when these machines were very new to the industry. I had a simple use for it on only one guitar model, and I agreed that if did nothing more than that, yes, it would be an expensive solution, but we could live with it. Without taking up chapters to write about it, I’ll say that we now have $1/2 million invested in all types of lasers that run, cutting parts, nearly 24 hours a day. They are crucial to our operation, and were one of the key components in the redesign of our necks that I keep referring to. Every single one of the hundreds of operations that we now do came about by the fact that we had a laser in our shop, where before we didn’t have one. We literally design guitar components that we would not have thought of before because we knew before that we couldn’t manufacture the design anyway. Before, every time our minds would wander into our wish list of solutions we’d back track because we new we couldn’t make our wish come true in the physical world. Now, we have lasers that can make parts we never dreamed of making before. You see, the capability, having the resource, changes the way we design. It changes our fundamental creativity.

It’s very hard to explain with so little words, but Taylor Guitars would not exist today, in the form it is, without having bought that first laser for that first job. And I can say the same thing about our Ultra Violet Cured finishes that we invented to be able to comply with Environmental Laws. Or the computer driven mills and robots that do work that is impossible for a person to do. When we first started using computerized mills, I had to give a slide show presentation at a guild of guitar makers. I showed a photo of this machine, that everyone was critically gossiping about, and introduced it as “the machine that eats men and spits their bones into the sky.” Nobody could understand how a guitar maker could commit such a defiling act against the idea of “hand crafting” an instrument. Fast forward to present and go see them all using the same machines in order to compete both in quality and cost. I’m happy to see them doing it. You see they don’t just compete against me, but they have to compete against other forms of making a living. They’ve now made themselves more productive. They remain guitar builders because of it.

Every one of these examples started as a small, calculated risk and grew into great benefits. But, please understand, the added benefits were completely hidden at the onset. Financial-type people always ask me what the payback period is on one of these costly machines. (We have millions of dollars worth of them now.) They also like to know what study I made to calculate the need. I can only tell them that I know my future lies down that road. Out there is where my future is and these inventions and investments are a part of that future. Why, they help to create the future. If that is not faith, I don’t know what is.

Okay, that’s machines, which you don’t use.  I could say the same about the Chiropractor that we put on staff to take care of our workers. Three hundred and fifty people use their bodies each day to serve our company. He makes them feel healthy and prevents repetitive strain and keeps them feeling good. They like to come to work when their back hurts because that’s where free treatment resides. Years later, our worker’s compensation experience modification is now the lowest in our state, which saves us from ruin as California’s out-of-control rising rates place 50% hikes on employers across the board.

I am telling you that you have no idea what could be spawned from buying something like your first video projector to put the words of your worship songs up on a screen, (as if that’s all it can do) or make your first little movie of a men’s breakfast on your iMac, because it hasn’t been revealed to you yet. Do not pooh-pooh your way out of a bright future, or let naysayers discourage you and your team.  These little things can turn into more than they appear to be on the surface. That little iMovie you spend two hours making could capture a moment that leads the next person to the Lord, when it’s taken to all your Home Groups and played to the neighbors. It could be the start of a broadcasting network. You never know.

I’m not trying to hand out a license to buy needless toys with money you don’t have, but I believe with all my heart that you create a future for yourself by taking steps of faith. I was asked here how we use technology and creativity to solve problems, and how to improve on things that are already good. When we’re all done patting ourselves on the back for taking our future into our own hands and creating a bright path to walk down, let’s all remember that this is the whole idea of faith, and that God blesses us for our obedience in displaying our faith. That’s how it works.

Have a question or an insight? Leave it below!


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