A Shiny New Coat of Paint

I think that one of mankind’s greatest achievements is the evolution of paint. I also believe it is mankind’s greatest admission of imperfection.

I have been intimate with paint since I was a young boy. My Grandfather had an old boat on the Monongahela River in Western Pennsylvania called the Dawn. She was a forty-eight foot cabin cruiser originally built for the Great Lakes that Grandpa Bob had bought before I was born.

HMS Dawn

The Dawn had twin Gray Marine diesel engines http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray_Marine_Engine and an Onan Generator for a power supply. Since she was built for lake cruising, she carried a weeks worth of water, fuel, and had real anchors on the forward teak deck. She was a deep hulled boat so we had to be careful on our many trips up and down the rivers. A basic radar, sonar and marine radios kept Grandpa on top of all the dangers a river can present and the full lifeboat was the only one of its kind I can remember growing up on the river.

Robert W. Parkins

Smaller boats would wait for the Dawn to come by at full throttle since the wake was large enough to create a mini-ski ramp out of water. We use to sit on the back deck and wait for the next boat to take us on. Grandfather was a Commodore in the Coast Guard Auxiliary who had served as a River Patrol officer during the War years up and down the smoky corridors of the steel mills lined on either side of the rivers. He was very careful to make sure the Dawn was as ready as she could be to face any danger. But there was one danger that no amount of preparation could forestall:  The corrosive effects of the river on the painted hull.

As much as the Dawn was the envy of most kids along the river bank, she became one of my hardest tasks as a kid. Part of our payment for the numerous rides we would take during the summer was scrapping and sanding the hull in the spring. No matter what kind of paint Grandfather tried, every spring we would end up scraping most of it off and applying the new brand. The rivers of Western PA are much cleaner now that the mills are mostly gone but in those days they were fired up day and night and the coolant waters eventually ended up in the rivers. That is why they were built next to rivers after all.

The mines in that part of the country also had a lot of runoff which was probably not monitored as well as it should have been. Remember the clean water act wasn’t even signed into place until 1972 and by that time I was on my way to Boot Camp to get some serious exposure to chipping, sanding and painting. So for at least a greater percentage of my young life, I could be found with my brothers walking up and down the hull of the Dawn which was cradled at Engels boat yard.

Young Sailors

The imperfection was the use of wood which had been the standard material for boats of its kind for more generations than I can imagine. Wood obviously was an acceptable substance because it allowed for some level of buoyancy and was relatively easy to manipulate into shapes with the tools and technologies of its day. But having to use something was a self inflicted admission that the greatest minds of the day could not come up with a better substance. Until metal was able to replace it. Finally, in the case of pleasure boating the miracle of all miracles: fiberglass.

The day the dawn was sold and replaced with a Chris Craft House Boat remains one of my most bittersweet memories. No more forward bunk room where we fought off imaginary pirates (on our way to Pittsburgh to actually see the real Pirates play). No more lifeboat drills and the difficult maneuvering that was required to navigate the locks on the Allegheny and the Mon. But, no more painting either. Except for a few touch ups done by the professional boat yard guys, our days of painting were behind us forever. Or in my case until I first met the George Washington in Guam coming back from an extended patrol.

Where in the world did all that green crap and all those barnacles come from? The GW had to go into dry-dock for some quick repairs and I even found out more about hull painting. It wasn’t until I reported on board the Halibut a few years later that I really discovered the fine art of painting as we prepared her for decommissioning. Despite the fact that I was a highly trained steely eyed killer of the deep, I was quick to realize that even steely eyed killers had to man a brush in order to cover up man’s imperfection.

That’s right, imperfection. Obviously if some one had designed it well enough or created the right material, it wouldn’t need paint now would it? Have you ever tried telling that to a Chief? Yep, Chief John was seriously unimpressed with my interpretation of man’s inability to overcome his imperfections and actually increased the amount of painting I would get to experience. I learned pretty quickly to keep my observations about philosophy to myself. I believe the Chief was pretty happy I made that discovery all by myself.


I don’t know where you are sitting right now as you read this, but look around you at all the imperfection. Your walls, your furniture, and probably your ceiling are probably a tribute to man’s inability to make the perfect surfaces. Unless you live in a log cabin (which probably has a clear coat of something to protect the wood) you are probably surrounded by paint. I think we have just come to accept that it will be a part of our lives (which undoubtedly makes the paint companies very happy by the way).

One of the disturbing trends I have seen in workplaces over the years however is to use paint to avoid having to actually fully adopt lean principles. Don’t get me wrong, I love the feeling of a workplace that has just gone through a dramatic change because of a dedicated effort. I like the progress charts, the before and after pictures, the happy faces of the workers as the plant manager comes down to congratulate them on their success.

The disturbing part is the rush to get the paint on without understanding the root causes of why it needed painting in the first place. The simple (and wrong) answer would be to scoff “Well of course it was dirty and scarred up… this is a factory”. Really? You want to go with that answer? How about driving to the root cause of why is is dirty and scarred up in the first place. Didn’t the same hands that cleaned and paint the pace have that ability before you and your 5S program showed up?

You see the problem is that even though you have shined it and put a shiny new coat of paint on it, until you change the mindset of the people who live in that place, you will find yourself sometime in the near future staring at a place that need painting and deep cleaning again. Without a culture change that recognizes that the cleanliness and painting is all a part of problem solving and discipline building, you are doomed to repeat this as often as new plant managers rotate through your business.

Paint is a great partner and really helps to cover up the imperfection we design into almost everything. But never lose sight of the fact that you are covering imperfection. The real goal is to find the “fiberglass solution” more commonly known as continuous improvement.

I miss the Dawn sometimes. The throaty roar of those twin diesels and feeling the wind as you charged down the river are memories that will last a lifetime. But I sure am glad I had a few months off before I went into the Navy because of her fiberglass replacement.

Retirement 2

Mister Mac

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