A top-down view of the secret compartment book with pop-our compartment.

Postmortem Analysis: Making the Most of Mistakes

A great man once said,

Dude… sucking at something is the first step toward being sort of good at something. – Jake the Dog, AdventureTime

I live by this philosophy. As a maker, the excitement of creating something I’ve never made before is what drives me. But how often do any of us get something right on the first try?

Not very often.

Sometimes I take commissions to make something completely unique for a client. In these cases I’ll only build that thing one time, and this can pose a real challenge. When you’re making a one-off creation you may not have the chance to build new skills or fix design flaws through repetition. And lets face it: mistakes happen.

I locked horns with this challenge during the month of December.

A client commissioned a secret compartment book as a bespoke Christmas gift for a friend.  He had a specific vision. I had a head full of ideas to step up both the quality and awesomeness factor by integrating some woodwork and spring-loaded hardware.  I had limited time to complete it and no room for error. It would either ship on time and perfect, or not at all.

The end result was a Picasso interpretation of the vision I had in my head. The workmanship was rushed and sloppy, and it turns out the end result wasn’t quite what the client described in our conversations.

Cool concept.  Poor execution. But I’m not one to get discouraged.

In order to get from sucking at something to being kind of good at something you need to take time to reflect on what went wrong. This is called a postmortem analysis and that’s precicely what I’ll be doing in the remainder of this blog post.

The term post-mortem is latin for “after death”, and originally referred to a medical examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death. The term has, more colloquially come to refer to any “after the fact” analysis and discussion of a recently completed process or event, to see what lessons we can learn from it. – Mark Kampe, Pomona College

This process can be as formal or relaxed as you want. The important part is that you take the time to review your process and it’s output objectively in order to figure out what you did right, what you did wrong, and what you can change to maximize your chances of success in the future.

A Postmortem Analysis of my Secret Compartment Book 2.0

A top-down view of the secret compartment book with pop-our compartment.

A top-down view of the secret compartment book with pop-our compartment.

Accepting an Unrealistic Deadline

Some people thrive on the artificial pressure that deadlines inspire.  I’m one of those people. After all, constraints can drive creativity. But accepting a deadline you know to be impossible is a terrific way to set yourself up for failure.

The Problem: I Accepted a Deadline I Knew Would be Hard to Meet

The client ordered this secret compartment book as a Christmas gift on December 1. This meant that I had to ship to California in time for the holidays. This gave me four weeks to plan, order parts, and complete the book.

On December 3 we had a baby.

This project was setup to fail from the beginning.  RC Creative is not my full time job.  In fact the time that I scrape together to be a maker is largely time robbed from my web development business or family. Furthermore, this project was accepted two days before our daughter was born. By the time the raw materials arrived I was already running out of time to build this project. I did very little planning and rushed the actual construction.

The Result: Poor Quality, Failure to Meet Client Expectations

Accepting the deadline for this project during the first three weeks of my newborn’s life was a poor choice.  This decision resulted in an end product that didn’t meet my quality expectations. Even though I had gone through a brief process of sending sketches and getting approval from the customer, the end result was actually not the design he expected. I wasn’t satisfied enough with my work to let the customer give me money.

Solution: Work with Clients to Set Realistic Goals

I had two facts at my disposal which should have been enough information to turn down or revise this commission:

  • I had a newborn daughter to adjust to and care for
  • Christmas was four weeks away and I didn’t have a plan or materials.

I was excited to build something new, and in that excitement I never bothered to ask if I could deliver the project after Christmas. As it turns out, that would not have been a problem. Sometimes aggressive deadlines can make miracles happen.  Sometimes they sink a project before it leaves the port. This situation was the latter.

In the future, I plan to factor in the realities of my work and family schedule. I will not accept a commission with a short deadline that I could fail to meet given the slightest setback.  I will work with customers to adjust expectations in order to set myself up for success before I pick up my tools.

Poor Communication

This project was essentially an email inspired from one of my YouTube videos, and a follow-up napkin sketch.  More planning was necessary.

The Problem: Poor Communication with the Client

Even though the client and I talked several times throughout the project, we failed to have the same vision for the end product. As a result, we were aiming for different goals.

The client described what he wanted in specific detail. He wanted a secret compartment book specifically designed to hold a Samsung Galaxy S7 phone. I should use a softcover book, preferably a law book, that’s thick enough that you could leave pages loose at the front and back to give the appearance of a normal book upon very casual inspection. He wanted the compartment as close to the spine as possible.

I drew what he described and sent him the sketch.  He approved. Unfortunately there were critical details I either failed to document in the sketch or he failed to point out as being contrary to his needs.

The Result: I Built the Wrong Thing

In the end I built what I thought the customer wanted. Or maybe I even built what I thought the customer should want. My interpretation of his description missed the mark enough to cause problems. I had actually designed the compartment perpendicular to what the client had envisioned.

The Solution: Better Communication, Better Illustrations

We talked on the phone several times but words were insufficient. It’s ridiculous that we relied on them so heavily when the client had contacted me by email in the first place. I sent the client a very rough sketch of my plan in a text message.  While I thought it was sufficient to capture what my interpretation of his description, he was unable to point out any discrepancies. I should have asked for specific feedback. I should have made a more formal, more detailed illustration that showed actual dimensions, and was more clear on the orientation of all of the components.

What would have been great is to let him sketch what it was that he wanted that we were unable to describe to each other in words.

An important part of this postmortem analysis was to figure out why the compartment binds up when you slide in the wallet, and how to avoide it in the future.

An important part of this postmortem analysis was to figure out why the compartment binds up when you slide in the wallet, and how to avoide it in the future.

Failure to Plan

Given that I had already accepted a deadline I was unlikely to meet, I neglected to take steps between napkin sketch and putting tools to material that might have helped us discover flaws in the plan ahead of time.

The Problem: Failing to Plan Failed to Illuminate Avoidable Problems

I already pointed out that the client’s request was very specified. It sounds like the client did all the planning for me, right? He knew what he wanted. That much is a given. Unfortunately some of the specific details he hoped for me to achieve were what led to problems later.

Unfortunately I didn’t have the time or the spare materials to practice or test any of the design details before building the final product.

The Results: Poor Workmanship, Less than Perfect Functionality.

Because I didn’t test the design and ideas that the client and I had agreed upon before I started building the project, it resulted in a few errors in craftsmanship that could have been avoided.

Carving out so much space in the center of a softcover book leaves the remaining material feeling flaccid. After I build the wallet and installed it in the compartment, I discovered there was so much flexibility in the remaining pages that they would droop down and act as a barrier to the graceful ejection of the wallet from the compartment.

When I cut the pages of the book (an activity that’s both destructive and non-reversible) I used a tool I designed specifically to cut through books quickly. Unfortunately during the cut the pages “splayed-out” as I plunged the tool, resulting in an angled cut with too much material removed towards the bottom. The result is a very ugly and noticeable gap in the ends of the pages where the wallet slides into the book.  This was the most important detail of the project to get right, poor planning and rushing resulted in getting it very wrong.

The Solution: Plan Ahead, Make a Prototype, Think Through Destructive Operations, Use Delicate Tools for Delicate Work

Obviously, more planning was required. Having extra time and materials available to make a prototype first would had led to the discovery of the design decisions that made this project fail.  Besides, if the prototype had been successful, it would have been sellable too.

My worst failure in building this secret compartment book was in the way that I cut the pages. I love my book-cutting tool and I’ll continue to use it in the future for simpler projects. But the hidden compartment in this version extends to the end of the page. This means the cut is visible, and needs to be straight and exact to minimize visibility. This project called for finesse and patience that I just didn’t bring to the table this time. When you need a thin cut in paper an X-Acto Knife is always the way to go, and instead I used the crafting equivalent of a chainsaw.

Cutting out the center was the only truly destructive step in making this book. I had only one book. After cutting it apart, it could not be un-cut. Dedicating the time to cut the compartment with the more delicate tool would have been best. Using an aggressive tool often amplifies errors.

In our postmortem analysis we find that the we used the wrong tool for the job when cutting out the compartment.

In our postmortem analysis we find that the we used the wrong tool for the job when cutting out the compartment.

What I Did Right

The greatest success that I had in this project was a result of good planning. The client wanted this secret compartment book to fit a Samsung Galaxy S7. Finding the dimensions of the phone was easy, and I used those dimensions to craft a template. The phone template determined the size and shape of the wallet. The wallet determined the size and shape of the compartment. As a woodworker I understand that measuring is the enemy of accuracy. The wallet, made from veneer-thin cherry and faced with the remnants of the cut paper, is truly gorgeous and a detail I’ll be sure to repeat in the future.

The awesome phone template and finished wallet. Whoops, I forgot to clear the history!

The awesome phone template and finished wallet. Whoops, I forgot to clear the history!


This postmortem analysis resulted in a number of lessons I’ll be sure to carry with me in the future. Some were general: don’t accept deadlines you can’t realistically meet.  Plan. Make a prototype out of cheaper materials to discover design flaws before you commit them to the final product. For custom projects ensure that I’m building what the customer wants.

Other lessons were more specific.  Use fine tools for fine work.  Use hardcover books and books with thicker pages that won’t droop and affect the mechanism. Move the compartment closer to the edge of the pages rather than the spine to avoid drooping. Keep the cutting tool perpendicular to the book to ensure a straight, even cut.  I plan to build this project again, and I think I have a good game plan to move ahead and find success in the next iteration.