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    Pursuing Excellence

    May 6, 2019
    Excellence is still the benchmark of a true craftsman.

    ex·cel·lence

    /ˈeks(ə)ləns/

    noun

    1. the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.

    I wonder how many reading this would consider their trade skills as excellent? Do we value excellence in ability, training, knowledge and skill anymore? In recent times—in my opinion anyway—excellence has fallen out of favor and been replaced by “good enough.” Time though has a way of redefining our memories, and so, recollections of pursuit of excellence in skills and knowledge of times past may be suspect. In other words, perhaps my recall of doing excellent work years ago is flawed. Only my memory serves, and it’s biased.

    The very word, excellent (or excellence) has become passe. It is used in the vernacular to describe something that goes our way or that makes one happy. You know what I mean. Today someone exclaiming “EXCELLENT!!” when a particular event or happenstance turns out well for them is commonplace. Is it really “excellent” or is it merely good? Much as the words ‘dude’, ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ has become severely overused, so has the word excellent. It’s now just a part of speech and has, for the most part, lost its descriptive uniqueness.

    What, you may wonder, am I prattling on about? I’ll tell you. For quite a few years now, we have watched the decline of our trade, both in the quantity and quality of the people coming into it and practicing it. There are a lot of reasons for this but, in my opinion, one of the biggest reasons is that no one (or not many) ever thought such a long-standing, basic bread-and-butter occupation would suffer the declines we’ve witnessed in just one generation. After all, plumbing is one cornerstone of a successful civilization. Without plumbing as we know it today, disease and pestilence would be running rampant in our cities, as indeed they are in more than a few third world countries. The fact that technology has made the application of the trade in the U.S. today into a DIY paradise is not reason enough to explain the decline.

    Homes and businesses still need to be built with modern plumbing systems. Commercial and industrial buildings and plants still need specialty piping systems as well. Someone has to know what they are doing to install and maintain those systems and to make them work properly. Architects and engineers can draw and figure, but the guy who does the install is the guy who needs to make those drawings and figures work. You can compartmentalize aspects of the industry and “get by” but eventually, you’re going to come upon a situation that requires knowledge of the entire picture to solve an issue. That’s where excellence starts.

    Which brings me to the point of this piece. Excellence is still the benchmark of a true craftsman. Excellence cannot be ‘taught’, it can only be achieved by education, hard work, repetition and developed skills. It is having not only a comprehensive knowledge of the mechanics of a particular skill, but an intimate understanding of “what goes where and what comes next.” Reaching that point in one’s career where all of those things come together, is the goal.

    The catalyst for this column was a photo-gallery in the recent online edition of Contractor Magazine entitled the “Wall of Fame.” If you are a regular reader of this magazine, you’ve seen the “Plumbing Nightmares” gallery, wherein the most bone-headed, outrageous and dangerous “fixes” for plumbing problems are highlighted. Well, the “Wall of Fame” piece is the exact opposite.

    The 35 photos included in that gallery showed some of the finest examples of our trade to be found in one publication. When we think of excellence at all, the work highlighted in those photos is what we should be thinking of. The design, implementation and presentation of the piping and systems is a true representation of trade craft, skill, knowledge and artistry. Pride in workmanship, across all types of materials and for all types of piping systems practically jumps off the screen.

    The workmanship and attention to detail represent the very best our trade has to offer. The people responsible for that should be justly proud of their work. They have achieved excellence in their chosen field. It represents our entire industry not only to other tradesmen, but to construction professionals and lay people alike. You cannot look at those photos and not see the expertise. The logical progression in those pictures is one of competence and skill in delivering a product in the very best way possible.

    So the question remains, do we still teach excellence? Is excellence an outdated concept, not just in our trade, but in general? In a broader context, which is evident in our present day, do we settle for mediocrity by pandering to the one-size-fits-all “participation trophy” mentality that seems to pervade all aspects of our society? Or do we strive for and encourage excellence? Where do you stand?

    The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third-generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].