On the Nature of Work

Tom Peters

Little has given me more pleasure of late than spring barn cleaning. Sheep, goats, llamas, and horses have been feeding there for months. The job is smelly, muddy (we don’t call it mud season in Vermont for nothing), exhausting. Still, after three agonizing days, I was singularly satisfied. No, you can’t eat off the floor. But it’s a barn to be proud of again.

Cleaning the barn got me wondering about the nature of work, and the fact that any task can become a source of pride.

The New York Times recently ran an offbeat article on Melvin Reich, Manhattan’s premier buttonhole man. “Buttonholes are what we do. We do buttonholes and buttonholes and buttonholes. I am specialized, like the doctors,” said Reich. “You think it’s nothing. Just a buttonhole. But it’s something. It’s not nothing.” And the clincher: “Zippers are a totally different field. It’s a different game. A man can only do so much.”

Thinking about buttonholes this way may explain, among other things, the obsessive Japanese demand for quality, which we often see as sinister. After all, in Japan such things as arranging flowers and serving tea properly can be lifetime occupations.

For instance, the neophyte pursuing the Way of Tea spends years learning the intricate rituals of presenting the beverage correctly—selecting and
handling utensils, preparing the garden path to the teahouse, placing the charcoal so that the glowing coals beneath the pot form a perfect cone. The server works even more assiduously at developing a “sincere heart,” according to tea master Soshitsu Sen XV.

(Incidentally, if you want to be effective in Japan, I’d urge studying the tea ceremony rather than reading a shelf full of books on Japanese business strategy.)

Soshitsu Sen XV offers superb advice for the Way of Tea—and life. “It seems wise … to abandon any goal of achieving success,” he writes. “Giving up this goal may in itself result in a successful experience.”

What an un-American idea! But, then, consider quality. Beating the drum for top quality scores is a snare. Instead, we should patiently create processes and a culture that make every day for everyone an adventure in pursuit of improvement. The eventual measure of quality is almost incidental—a more or less natural outcome of a continuing, passionate journey.

We Americans characteristically pay more attention to the destination than the journey. And our fixation with results has paid off. But we frequently miss the mark when it comes to true mastery—of barn cleaning, buttonholes, or auto-making.

But, praise be, there’s Sal Gomez, an autoworker I met during a tour of NUMMI, the stellar Toyota-GM joint venture. He’s a denizen of one of several “Kaizen shops”—little nooks along the assembly line, chockablock with tools, where gizmos of various sorts are constructed to aid productivity. Sal’s completed hundreds of projects, and seems to be in love with his work. The hell with it: No “seems to be,” he is in love with his work. His enthusiasm and energy made my day. For me, NUMMI will always be Sal—the embodiment of a new spirit that also happens to be successful in the marketplace.

Even managers can join this game. “I probably spend about 99 percent of my time on what others may call ‘petty details,'” wrote Adm. Hyman Rickover, the Navy’s pioneering nuclear submariner. “Most managers would rather focus on lofty policy matters. But when the details are ignored, the project fails.”

Rickover’s words could translate into micromanagement. But a leader’s passion for minutia need not equate with second guessing subordinates. The effective detail-oriented boss, for example, will devote most of her or his energy to removing the infinitesimal roadblocks to team performance that can be so intimidating to participants—e.g., scrounging space for a prototype shop, requisitioning a new workstation.

In fact, Rickover, though finicky, was a demon about delegation and insisted that folks stick with a job long enough to master it, rather than squandering their days angling for the next assignment. “Complex jobs cannot be accomplished effectively with transients,” he insisted. “When one feels he owns his present job and acts that way, he need have no concern about his next job.”

There’s lots that can be done by the powers that be to improve the workplace. Yet you and I have a chance to make our own work special. If we don’t, after all, it’s we who suffer.

“It is a matter of indifference what a person’s occupation is, or at what job he works,” wrote the German dramatist C.F Hebbel. “The crucial thing is how he works, whether he … fills the place in which he happens to have landed. The radius of his activity is not important; important alone is whether he fills the circle of his tasks.” Or as Soshitsu Sen XV put it, “A monk once asked his master, ‘No matter what lies ahead, what is the Way?’ The master quickly replied, ‘The Way is your daily life.'”

Won’t you join me for barn cleaning next spring?

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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