Monday, May 26, 2014

The Wabisabi of the Mom 'n' Pop

When I recall the treasured memories of my life in Japan, it would be the routine of dining out at my favorite restaurant in my neighbourhood of Kyoto during the eight years I lived there.  It was a simple place just a few metres from my apartment located right next to JR Saga Arashiyama station.  (Yes, go there and tell them I said hi.)

It was a family business with a simple menu that was not so different from other restaurants like it in any other neighbourhood throughout the country, or the world for that matter.  Yes, the food would be different from one place to the next and the actual dishes and glasses that were used would be based on the realities of running a small family business, rather than the rugged tactile realness or earthiness that wabisabi would attribute to handmade pottery, but the personal touch that that family brings to their operation and to their interactions with the customers is hard to come by with bigger businesses that strives to achieve larger corporate ambitions.

The little mom and pop that I went to so regularly over the years and still resonates with me nearly 11 years after I left that neighbourhood is that essence of the mom and pop business and on a personal level the essence of how wabisabi of smaller business creates for them advantages that can not be matched in larger organizations.

Before I wax rhapsodic on that little restaurant or the last visit I paid there during a holiday in 2010, let me go to the other end of the spectrum for a few moments.  A few months ago while I was out with my wife, son and in-laws we went to one restaurant from a chain that purports itself to be a casual dining experience.  It is one of a significant chain across western Canada that has an award-winning chef behind its menu and probably a target demographic market of the 25-45 age range.  With my in-laws and my 2 year old, it has always felt like an uneasy compromise.  Also, as the wage-earning male of the group I tend to get a bit more attention during the interactions with the wait staff, which you can already predict is comprised of younger women who are easy on the eye and tend to teeter on the footwear they work in rather than move fluidly and briskly.

On one occasion I somehow caught a glimpse of, let's call it a cheat sheet, that the waitress had.  Her primer featured what the restaurant, the chain I might emphasize, called.  I can't recall what the entire list was verbatim but they were steps in the interaction with the customers.  Repeat and/or Review were in their for the sake of getting the order right, of course, but they were lost in the shadow of one R that I'd consider misplaced or interloping: Romance.  From what I could gather from my angle and the brief time I had to look - this almost suggest that a forbidden glance that is prelude to some other events is at play here - there were guidelines and prompts to be flirtatious enough in the interaction to entice a little bit more out of the customer. Whether it was an effort to up-sell or establish a Rapport (another possible R, but likely taking a backseat to the efforts at Romance) that made the interaction with the customer something more it was not to be.  There was none of the sincerity behind it and throughout the other visits to that restaurant there was never sufficient impression left by any of those waitresses who were working those same 5 Rs from Vancouver to Calgary to Winnipeg the as well as they can.  In reality they are occasionally earning the noun "bimbo" in reviews posted to Urbanspoon.  It was all something the left me looking at my wristwatch throughout and marking time with comments about the slow service as much as anything else I could talk about.

The place I recall from Kyoto was one where the faces were always familiar after the first visit and remained so over the course of time.  There was always a heartiness and sincerity to the greetings and interactions that went beyond the excitement of having a token white guy drop in.  There was something ineffable yet deep to the interaction that made the return each week or so a pleasure for the company of my harried hosts a pleasure until I spotted the moment in the schedule on Sunday evenings where I could drop in as the day was coming to a close and I took up a table while the ballgame played on the TV and a few of the rickshaw drivers who showed the tourists around ended there week the same way I did.  There was the opportunity to linger a bit and catch up with a bit of small talk.  It was the part of my routine in Japan that made the neighbourhood more like home.  It also made the place a most stop during my first back trip to Japan.  I looked forward to it for the company even more than the fried chicken I almost always ordered.  The routine was familiar and it was one that made that place feel like one that was part of my Kyoto, part of my home.  I never worried about the length of time it took to be served there.  I was far more conscious about taking a table for four when I came in alone and if it were hectic, I made a point of gesturing to them that I could wait.  (It was the least I could do when I really wanted to pitch in and clear a table or two for them.)

When I returned on a holiday in 2010, 7 1/2 years after I left Japan, my wife and I took a table and watched them at work.  It was lunch time in the middle of the autumn colours of November, a time of year just as scenic and tourist-clogged as cherry blossom season, so we were able to seat ourselves unnoticed, or so I thought.  I watched everyone at work.  The mom and pop each a little older.  Pop perching a pair of glasses on his nose and perhaps a little stooped and Mom moving a little slower than I would have liked.  Their son was in the kitchen next to his Dad and a sister, I believe of the Mom, was working the floor also.  I waiting to make my regular order to see if there would be recognition then, but before I got my menu, there was a stop of recognition.

Pat?!  PAT!?!

I beamed at the welcome.  After seven years.

While they may not have aspired to concoct a dining concept that would have spawned a national chain and with it an elaborately detailed and described corporate culture sure to attract clients and potential employees alike, they carefully, plate-by-plate, day-by-day, six days a week provided great food that was never pretentious.  Their grace, humility and Pop's gregarious "maido!!" - Kyoto slang for thank you - shouted from the kitchen made me to come back after that very first day.  It is the commitment to and the elevation of these simple, humble things, the gratitude for the opportunity to share food together, that brought me back time after time and stuck in my head for the years afterwards to make it a must-visit and something that I laud now for its simplicity and purity 11 years later.

There was nothing inculcated in a corporate training room, nothing refined and redefined for "fit" with the brand after hours of observation and training and customer satisfaction surveys.  They just wanted to run a restaurant and make good food.  They, like countless other moms and pops have done so with a personal touch that is not calculated and calibrated, but is the very paradigm of what personal service can and ought to be.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Don't Buy The Packaging

I am in the middle of reading Peter Block's Community The Structure of Belonging and stumbled across the sentence, "Don't buy the packaging."  In Block's book it was a reference to giving feedback on shortcomings or discussing weaknesses, which he opposes in his book.  The old sandwiching of feedback between two compliments or the stark suggestion that the feedback is for one's own good don't wash with him.  His school of thought is that emphasizing strengths and gifts is far more valuable and nurturing.

The sentence "Don't buy the packaging," also sums up so much of what wabisabi stands for as well.  There is an ease in so many ways -- whether looking at interior design, materials or the solutions or strategies that people adopt in business or the workplace -- where the packaging lures people toward something that is ultimately superficial and lacking the value and utility that we may attribute to it when we "buy" something, whether by taking the money out of our pockets or believing it to be valuable.

Much of wabisabi's focus is on the essence of things rather than the sleekness, veneer or lamination that they may have.  In many instances today, unfortunately, these surfaces are the main selling point and the thing that many are enticed to buy.

Our food is probably the most vivid example of how the packaging has won out over the essence.  So many foods entice us because of the convenience they afford us to rip them open and devour them with a hand (or even two) free to do something else.  There are foods that resemble what they always used to or even look more ideal and consistent than they did a generation ago but lack the flavour they once had.  I personally have lost interest in strawberries.  The smaller versions that came in wooden pint or quart boxes and promised to stain your fingers or the cutting board red as you cut them or ate them are larger stunt double versions that come from sunnier climes throughout the winter in convenient plastic containers than can be stacked and ventilated throughout transport lack the flavour of their ancestors that came from the local farms in June and early July.

In the business world, there is a continued gravitation toward the latest guru with the slickest phrasing to capture a certain message or an old principle that needs to be relearned.  Oddly enough, these gurus continue to gain attention by packaging and repackaging the same epigrams or variations on them time after time claiming that each successive book is the answer despite what was said in the previous book.  Few of those pithier, more popular "experts" have that much new to say.  More often than not, they tell their readers something they already know but need to put into terms that encourage them to commit.  The problem (or the advantage) of those rehashed messages is that they remain superficial and do not provide the penetration of a more novel or innovative approach.  They make a decent living out of rehashing the obvious and earn devoted followings who likely go for the advice, the seminars or the books on a regular basis because of the relatively short-lasting effects of each iteration on the themes.

Those more innovative approaches to addressing the challenges that occur in business and the workplace tend to have more of an artisan's touch to them.  They are more authentic and tend to avoid giving the pat answer to the challenges that we are trying to address.  They often provide answers or approaches that slowly catch on and need to be cultivated before they gain the toehold in the consciousness that they rightfully earn.  Word-of-mouth, passionate word-of-mouth, coax more and more attention to these approaches and result in something far more lasting than the marketing campaigns or discount offers that the so-called experts get packaged with.  More often these facilitators or teachers work with smaller groups and guide them through finding something they are passionate about and carefully building the synergies that will help people or organizations achieve success.  These people know that it is about process and commitment rather than a few principles or guidelines that or purported to fit all sizes.

Wabisabi favours things that are stripped down to their essence and ultimately simpler to discern.  The beginning and end of the object is clear.  There is no question of what we need from something and what is extraneous or is being sold to us unnecessarily.  The bare naked confidence of something or someone that is itself, himself or herself and nothing more is evident and in that provides comfort with its honesty, the challenges that come with that, and the paradoxes that ultimately expand our interaction with it and its impact on us.

It is like the red sugary stain a real strawberry leaves on your fingertips.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Authenticity Versus Copying in Automobile Manufacturing

Few things speak of the struggle to be authentic as quick, underthought adjustments to changes in market conditions.  The efforts by American car manufacturers in the 1970s to adapt to Japanese competition and the 1973 oil shock resulted in products that were ultimately embarrassing in their own ways to the Big 3 American auto makers.  The need to adapt to those changes of market forces required the automakers to stretch outside of their comfort zones with large boats and the endearing muscle cars that still capture the imagination 40-50 years after their peak and provide the template for the various revivals that have occurred over the last few years.

Creating a smaller car, something to compete with the Beetle, the Corolla and eventually the Civic was a new an unfamiliar task for the Big 3.  The Pinto, Vega and Omni for their respective manufacturers did not result in quality products or brands that drivers or manufacturers would be eager to revive or reminisce about.

The adaptation of these manufacturers to those changes in market forces was likely done by relying on familiar practices and priorities that had guided GM in other projects.  With the development of the Chevrolet Vega, General Motors' development of the car was still influenced by the corporate culture.  They may have failed to capture the essence of the development process by working toward technical and financial specifications such as their guidelines instead.  (I again cite the Falling Star History of the Vega page.)

The problem with working toward copying a bundle of technical specifications is that the process is less likely to coalesce into a coherent product or one with a clear essence.  Working to copy or match specifications identified as key indicators of a competitive product does not create the commitment or the buy-in amongst the group creating the product and that absence of essence will result. 

An approach to product development that started with the needs and interests of consumer or was developed in a manner was a bit more passionate than the amalgamation of specifications would have directed to manufacturers toward a process of product development that would have been more distinct and perhaps even more lasting than the products that resulted.

As the development of the vehicle proceeded, it fell short of achieving some of the specifications that GM established at the start of the project.  At 2300lbs, the car ended up weighing 300lbs. more than specified at the outset and it cost 10% more the the Beetle it was intended to compete with but required options at extra cost to have the standards features of its competitors.  The Vega certainly raises doubts about GM's interest in building smaller cars during the 1960's and early 70's.

The attempt to copy rather than to develop a vehicle or product from the ground up seems apparent with the development of small cars at that time.  By comparison, Chrysler's development of the original minivan a decade later allowed it to carve out a significant part of the market for itself with a product that strived to innovate rather than imitate.

And authenticity? 
At a time when more and more coaches and business leaders are laying claim to the word authenticity, I want to avoid any confusion regarding my use of it in this post.  I would like to clarify the use of authenticity as "original" and perhaps "true to one's self or one's corporate culture."

If I were to cite Chrysler's commitment to the minivan in the 1970's and 80's authenticity stemmed from being all-in for the project and a passion for it amongst its engineers and designers, despite the reluctance or even the disdain of the bean-counters.  While there may not have been a cohesive plan for the minivan, or support for it from higher-ups, the commitment to the project amongst this core group with the continued refinements that went into it through a (perhaps exceptionally) long design phase imparted to the minivan an authenticity that products like the Vega, the Ford Pinto or Chrysler's Omni/Horizon may never have attained because imitation never generated the passion amongst the participants that lead to the refinements that occurred with the lengthy development of the minivan.  Imitation would not generation the enthusiasm that an original project would generate either.

Copying often - if not always - engenders formulaic approaches rather than a deeper assessment of the people and resources that are being invested into a project and why they are coming together in the manner that they are.  Authenticity should not simply be an aspiration but the essence of a project and the commitment of the individuals involved in it.  If authenticity is set aside in favour of an imitation of what is assumed to be desirable, then success is less likely and the failure that more glaring.