Sunk Costs Fallacy; Woodcarving and Kaizen

If you studied economics, process engineering, or are an aficionado of popular psychology, you may have heard of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s alive and well in woodcarving too. Sunk costs are costs that you have paid, and that you can’t get back. That’s fine if everything worked out. But if the project just hasn’t been the success you wished for the temptation is to keep on trying to fix it. Sometimes it can’t be fixed. And that’s the sunk cost fallacy: The belief that just one more project revision will allow the Goony Bird Mk 29 to fly.
I knew it well. I called it “just one more cut.” Just one more cut to clean up that angle and the piece will work. Five cuts later, and the chip carving is worse off than when I started. I was most familiar with it from chip carving because some of the balance and symmetry of a piece comes from all cuts sharing similar geometry; one facet out of balance, and the carving looks odd.
I saw it a lot more when I started teaching. I start my courses with chip carving to teach tool control and the importance of sharp tools. An occasional student could not stop cutting and adjusting. Rarely did any of this result in a saved piece of work. I described it to my students at WoodenBoat School as “just one more cut.”
Later, over dinner, an engineer in my class told me about the sunk cost fallacy. As I am writing this, I can think of an eagle that I’ve carved that I’d love to take one more cut on. See, it’s pervasive.
Here’s some advice that I’ve offered before, but applies well here. First, turn the carving bottom for the top; how bad is the perceived defect? Second, using a hand mirror view the work from a variety of perspectives; once again, how bad is the defect? Third, put down the tools and work on something else for the rest of the day. Come back later. Fourth, before over cutting the piece, study the effect of the corrective cut. Fifth, when realizing that you’ve wasted hours mulling over ten-minutes of carving, throw the junk into the kindling bucket and do it right. It’s harder to do the further along the piece is; I’m not telling you that I have no struggles with this.
So, Robert Elliot, a colleague of mine who produces gorgeous Windsor chairs, once chided me that we can’t just throw everything that had a mistake in it away. We have to learn how to fix errors. That’s the value of the first steps, learning what we did wrong, thinking about how it can be fixed, and evaluating if it’s worth fixing. Hopefully, we learn enough that we avoid repeat errors and the frustration of endlessly falling into the sunk cost fallacy.

In Japanese martial arts, and in quality control, this is called Kaizen; a process of continual improvement. Warning, no relfection, no improvement.

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