Measure Twice, Cut Once

Measure twice, cut once is an adage I heard my father say over and over during the many home improvement projects we worked on at his house, as well as mine. It is a carpenter’s creed to double-check measurements for accuracy before cutting a piece of wood; otherwise it may be necessary to cut again, wasting time and material. Once the wood is cut, it can never be un-cut.

Following this rule is paying attention to the details and knowing for certain that the measurement is true. Measuring twice means thinking through all the things that could go wrong before acting or deciding. OSHA refers to this as ‘job hazard assessment’ as cutting once could cost a life. Looking and examining is not decision-making, it allows time for a better choice.

In business, projects are often begun with a sense of urgency. It may be because of the need to get started, the rush to beat a deadline or the imperative to show something productive. The attitude is ‘let’s make it happen’; ‘no analysis by paralysis here.’ Whatever it is, the desire is to produce something.

In a survey that was repeated in 2004, 2007, 2012 and 2014, the top reason for project failure in each year was bad estimates. Plans and specifications are issued half-baked, kicking significant issues down the road because of the need to get started, along with the excitement and hype of the “design unveiling” and public announcements. The result is Change Order after Change Order after Change Order; rarely matching the client’s vision and expectations.

Dave Ramsey the radio show host and businessman, offers similar advice around personal finances. Lack of preparation and a game plan will create more work, more stress, and cost money. With just a little planning, one can save money on fees and avoid careless spending.

Possibly the greatest need for this thought process is in clear communications. In the heat of the moment when emotions are high, it is easy to say something we later regret. The more we have going on, the greater chance of this happening. Think “measure twice” before barking out a command or firing off an email. I was once given the advice, after the fact mind you, to set aside an emotionally written letter (this was before email) before mailing it. Pause just long enough to make sure we really want this to be our message before we say or send it. Read it the next day after a good night’s sleep before you decide to send it. That is measuring twice and cutting once. It could prevent an uncomfortable conversation with your Dad.

Both the New and Old Testaments contain passages on this concept. In Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.” While in Proverbs 13:2-3 – “From the fruit of the mouth one enjoys good things, but from the throat of the treacherous comes violence. Those who guard their mouths preserve themselves; those who open wide their lips bring ruin.” One experiences the consequences of one’s own actions. If you guard your mouth (i.e. words) you guard your “soul.”

In today’s world with instant communication (texting, chats, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) rarely is anyone taking time to measure twice and seldom is their choice of words gracious and seasoned with salt. News journalism in their haste to break a story, no longer double checks facts and sources.

The apostle Paul supported himself by making tents while living and preaching in Corinth (Acts 18:3). As a tent maker, Paul would have understood the importance of measuring twice and cutting once. He used this language as he wrote to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15), to be one who cuts straight the word of truth. “Be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God, a workman who causes no disgrace, imparting the word of truth without deviation.”

As a parent, coach, and business leader, I have had many opportunities to follow this proverb in both words and actions. To take the time to measure a situation before acting. Once it is out there, it can’t be taken back. I have consciously made the choice that I can ‘make this cut’ later. In my experience, multi-tasking makes this situation worse. It does not allow me to measure wisely; it prevents being present in every situation, every decision.

The carpenter’s motto urges care. In fact, it’s more like an ethical imperative. It’s an invitation to a quality of excellence in one’s life. “Fear not, we will be prudent.” It’s also a virtue of promise-keeping: “You can rely on me. I’ll do it the right way. No shortcuts.”

Taking back words or actions is like un-cutting wood, un-hammering a nail, or un-ringing a bell … one just can’t undo the damage. Yes, we can apologize, ask forgiveness, and spend time repairing any damage. However, there is a cost to pay. If the wood is to be cut, it needs to be in the right spot.

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