The Parable of the Two-Dollar Chalk Mark

A little white “X” is worth more thank you think.

I recently spent the better part of a day looking into a bug. All the unit tests passed. The code looked correct. Everything should have been working. But it wasn’t.

Part of me was chagrinned that it took so long to track down what turned out to be a fix of less than one line. Sometimes, that’s just how it is, though. The fix itself is simple, but it can take a lot of time, resources, and hard work to isolate and identify the fix.

It reminded me of a parable my grandfather taught me. The Parable of the Two-Dollar Chalk Mark.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockPhoto/JLieberPhoto

The plant had been shut down for two weeks. Somewhere, a critical part had failed, but none of the engineers and technicians who worked at the plant could figure out where it was. The plant manager decided to bring in a consultant.

The consultant spent several days walking around with the owner and plant manager, inspecting the equipment and talking with the engineers and technicians who maintained it. Late Friday afternoon, he walked over to a part, pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket, and marked it with an “X”.

“There’s your problem,” the consultant told a relieved plant manager. “Replace that part, and you’ll be back up and running in no time.” The men shook hands and parted ways.

When the plant manager received the bill for the consultant’s services, he was furious and called the consultant. “A thousand dollars!? That’s outrageous! All you did was draw a chalk mark. My guys spent the weekend ripping that thing out and replacing it to get us back up and running. I won’t pay it!”

The consultant heard the plant manager out, then said, “You’re right. A thousand dollars is a lot to pay for a chalk mark. Throw out that bill—I’ll send you another one tomorrow.”

A few days later, the consultant’s revised invoice arrived:

One chalk mark $2
Knowing where to put the chalk mark $998

Given enough time, the engineers and technicians on-site could have figured out what was wrong and solved the problem themselves. They may have torn apart half the plant first (software is admittedly easier to debug) but they would have gotten there.

By bringing in a consultant, they were able to speed up their learning and solve the problem quicker. If I had consulted with one of my coworkers sooner, I could have saved myself some time.

Look at the projects and goals you’re working on. There are probably several areas where you could benefit by bringing in a consultant. This can be anything from one-on-one coaching to reading a book. Don’t waste time beating your head against the wall. Learn from an expert.

And once you’ve paid the price to know where the chalk mark goes, be proud of it. Someone out there is willing to pay you for that.

Question: What projects or goals are you facing where you could benefit by bringing in an expert? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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