Hardware Store Homilies: The Three-Eighths Riddle

I love my father. He is a lifelong salesman of the highest order from whom I have learned many valuable life-lessons. For example, unlike many in his trade he would never be so foolish as to approach a customer and ask, “can I help you?” Unfit to be called salesmen, those guys, according to Pop, were nothing more than clerks.

Note that Pop used the term, clerk, as a derision — an epithet reserved for the lowest of the low masquerading as someone who almost cares.

Long before there were consultants, Pop believed that true-blue salesmanship had less to do with “closing” the deal and more to do with providing a consultation, that is, contributing to the greater good by getting to the bottom of what the customer (his client) really needed, not necessarily what they said they wanted.

One of his many stories, The Three-Eighths Riddle, is apropos to our work because it points to the ability to listen carefully, ask pointed questions and decode the client’s story. In our world, it is these very same nuances that determine the success of our ambitious projects.

My pop’s teachable riddle (the way he tells it)…

A guy walks into the hardware store and goes up to the associate with the name badge and apron and says, “gimme a three-eighths drill.” What does he need?

Upon laying out the riddle, Pop would cross his arms, lean back and wait for your response, which typically began with the words, “Well, he wants a dr…”

That’s when he pounced, “…he needs a three-eighths inch HOLE!”

His message was simple (and curiously insufferable): When we ask for things, we often ask for what we WANT without knowing whether it is truly what we NEED to accomplish our goal.

That’s the simple part.

The not-so-simple part

Pop liked to point out that the customer needed a three-eight inch hole and had it in his mind that, if he purchased a three-eighths inch drill bit, it would provide the most economical pathway to obtain as many three-eighths inch holes as he may need.

In his quest to tell a good story with an important message, he may have oversimplified the outcome.

Perhaps, like most smart people, he rendered his diagnosis based on previous experience. In other words, he guessed. Pop would claim that his particular guess was extremely well-educated, informed by years of talking to customers just like that three-eighths drill fellow.

To me, a guess is still a guess.

The well-oiled machine

In addition to being dogmatic about getting to the customer’s real need, Pop can be a bit hasty to declare a solution. Perhaps for him, there is always too much to do to waste time deconstructing a perfectly satisfactory riddle. Size up the problem, dispense the answer and roll on.

It’s no surprise. His formative years coincided with the apex of the industrial revolution and the dawn of the electronics age — a time when productivity and efficiency reigned supreme. Commissions were based on number of sales not the amount of talk.

Talk is cheap and time is money.

Like a drill bit that punches out three-eighths inch holes all day, he was rewarded for getting to the right answer quickly and efficiently so that the sale could be rung up and the next customer in line could be helped.

It paid good money to be a well-oiled sales machine.

The fatal flaw of the three-eighths riddle is that real-life is rarely as straight forward. Furthermore, complex problems can be compounded by pat answers. (Come to think of it, the three-eighths riddle isn’t all that simple either.)

De-bunking the myth of the three-eighths inch hole

From the limited bit of information that the riddle provided, we cannot be certain that the customer actually needed a three-eighths inch hole, as my father insisted.

Try this test: do a Google shopping search for “3/8 drill” and you will find that most of the world thinks a three-eighths drill is a power tool with a three-eighths inch chuck. A power tool such as this can be used for a multitude of tasks other than making holes (i.e. driving screws, sanding disk, wire brush).

If, despite the odds, the clerk was fortunate enough to guess correctly (about the customer needing holes), still more data is needed before the correct item can be purchased.

For example, what is the material in which the customer needs the three-eighths hole?

Wood? Steel? Concrete? Glass? Paper?

Each of these materials requires a different type of drill bit (that’s the cutting tool you clamp into an electric drill’s three-eighths inch chuck) and some bits require special drills in order to work properly (e.g. high-speed masonry bits are designed to perform best using a hammer-drill).

The Message

Each of us is the product of the same reward system that produced my father. Through most of our careers, we have been incentivized to analyze a problem given minimal data and to dispense solutions at the highest possible velocity. Time is money.

Because we are bright, intuitive and logical (in addition to being fast learners when we make mistakes) each of us has earned a well-placed reputation for accuracy, efficiency and excellence.

As projects and organizations increase in complexity, our continued success depends upon our capacity to resist the aforementioned operant conditioning that drives us to pat answers. It is crucial to take the time to understand the underlying issues. Best-fit solutions arise only by asking pointed questions and validating our understanding, which can be an exhaustive process in which we are not entitled to circumvent by jumping to the right answer.

The success of our work depends upon our ability to qualify our client’s needs and to identify all the prevailing issues. Only after this exercise of discovery — once we have completed our due diligence — can we begin to formulate a workable solution.

Our problem-solving acumen is what got us to the dance, however it is our listening skills that will keep us in step with the music (without stepping on our partner’s toes).

Chime in!

Does the three-eighths riddle remind you of some experience you have had? Chime in using the comments (below) or on the AV-1 List.


by Joe Schuch
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

One thought on “Hardware Store Homilies: The Three-Eighths Riddle”

  1. The customer came up to me and said, “I need a three quarter by six inch iron nipple.”
    As a new hardware clerk I found this question totally mystifying.
    With customer in tow I found Nick, the plumber, who sure enough took us to the nipples.
    As a customer I don’t always know what it is I need from my AV vendor. But even when I don’t know the proper name for the thing I need, I need my vendor to listen and have a can-do attitude.
    But I wonder if schedules allow enough time and scope and scale of professional obligations allow us the capacity (willingness) to do the discovery and diligence that support a really complete and satisfying project result.

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