NOTIONS Bruce Hetrick: Sweating the small stuff is worth the trouble

April 11, 2005

Bruce Hetrick has the week off.In his absence,this column, which appeared on July 2, 2001, is being reprinted.

Two decades ago, Time magazine quoted a University of Nebraska cardiology professor on the ins and outs of coping with stress.

"Rule No. 1 is, don't sweat the small stuff," said Dr. Robert S. Eliot. "Rule No. 2 is, it's all small stuff." (Another doctor, Richard Carlson, later converted this concept into a series of self-help books.)

As a Type A, win-at-all-costs, drive'til-you-drop personality, I probably could benefit from a dose of Dr. Eliot's or Dr. Carlson's medicine. But as a business owner and communications counselor, I find too many folks who've used this don't-sweat-the-small-stuff stuff to justify sloth and sloppiness.

Those who've worked with me will tell you I can be a pain in the buttinski about sweating details. Misspell a word, misuse the letterhead margins, apply the wrong typeface, capitalize inappropriate letters, skip the punctuation, settle for a video jump cut or fail to answer the telephone by the second ring and you'll likely incur the Wrath of Bruce.

This leads my coaches, counselors, coworkers and co-habitants to say, "Who cares?" or "Why does it matter?" or "Let it go," or "No one but you will notice," and especially, "Lighten up, already."

But I can't-at least not where my clients' reputations and my own professional standards are concerned.

I can't because a friend told me the airline story.

This is thirdhand, mind you, and rightly or wrongly attributed to author Tom Peters. But in a nutshell, there's an airline president who's obsessed with spotless tray tables on his company's planes. After every flight, every airline employee knows the tray tables on each aircraft had better be cleaned and polished or the top gun will have a fit.

When someone asks the president why he's so concerned about something as innocuous as tray tables, he replies, "Because it says something about the engines."


Years ago, when I began working at Methodist Hospital, I was walking down a crowded public corridor behind Bill Loveday, the hospital's president and CEO at the time. In the middle of a conversation with a respected physician, Loveday stopped, snatched a small piece of scrap paper off the floor, and carried it with him until he passed a trash can, where he threw it away.

Over time, I saw other hospital executives do the same. Soon, I picked up the anti-litter habit myself. So did other employees. That made for an awfully clean medical facility, which, of course, said something about the surgeons.

But you don't need a big hospital or airline for the small stuff to make a difference.

When I started my firm, my friend the graphic designer asked if I needed a logo. I told him I was just working out of my basement and didn't need anything fancy.

"I'll just go over to Kinko's," I said, "and have them print up something quick and dirty."

"You could do that," he cautioned, "but you won't like what it does to your company. Even when you're starting out, you have to look like what you want to be, not what you are."

So he designed a custom logo for this fellow who worked in his cellar. We printed the look on pricey letterhead, labels, envelopes and business cards. I rigidly adhered to the typefaces and margins he recommended.

The look won a national design award. More important, it gave clients the impression that I ran a pretty sophisticated shop. It said something about the value of my advice.

It also saved me money in the long run. While the folks who cheaped out at Kinko's that year are now paying for their fifth or sixth change in corporate identity, I'm still using the one I began with seven years ago.

Sweat the small stuff up front and you'll have to do it only once.

Is this to say everyone must practice coronary-inducing perfectionism? Nope. I'm all for first efforts as coarse as sandpaper, as long as the originators of those works submit their stuff to checks and balances that polish the product. Call it quality control, process improvement, editing, proofreading, advising and consenting-any work benefits from a second opinion.

And does this detail-sweating mean everything must always look and sound the same forever and ever? Of course not. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

On the other hand, consistent attention to detail says, "Here's a product I can trust and a backside I don't have to cover."

The don't-sweat-the-small-stuff cardiologist has it all wrong. If folks blow off details, we all suffer the consequences and must pick up the pieces they drop.

When it comes to small stuff, I'm sticking with architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. His advice: "God is in the details."

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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