This post first appeared in PDMA Visions 2013 Q2 magazine, found here.
Over the holidays last year, I had my piano restored by a local expert, Hamer. We had purchased it eight years earlier from a church that was getting a new one so that our children could begin taking lessons. Turns out that it’s over a hundred years old, built by a New Jersey company, Cornish, in the year 1900 and has generally been considered a pretty good piano. Our first question for Hamer was, “is it worth saving?” After an initial assessment, he explained that it was absolutely worth saving due to the quality of the materials and workmanship he observed and because much of the interior was still very well preserved. After giving us the basic parameters for restoring it, he removed the front panel and gently lifted out the piano’s “action” which is the set of dampers and hammers that, respectively, end a note and start a note, and left for his shop. A month later, accompanied by a clean and restored action, he returned and began the process of re-installing and tuning it, all-the-while allowing me to watch and listen as he described the many inner-workings of our piano.
It struck me as I watched him polish the nearly 200 wire tension screws, align the dampers and hammers, and adjust each string to its perfect pitch, that I was in the presence of a real craftsman. I wondered about craftsmanship and how it might relate beyond the work I was witnessing – to my own work and to that of others.
Can one be a craftsman of marketing, innovation, product design or risk analysis?
To answer we must first ask “what is craftsmanship?”
In my experience, “craftsmanship” is almost always only associated with hand crafted physical goods or services like furniture, carpentry or, in my case, piano restoration. My definition of craftsmanship is rooted in two fundamental concepts…excellence and focus. Excellence implies not only quality, but quality in the highest degree, satisfying both the base quality expected by the customer as well as a very high internal bar comprised of additional latent elements that won’t necessarily be expected, but greatly appreciated. A craftsman possesses both great knowledge of the work necessary to produce excellence as well as the attention to detail necessary to recognize it from the beginning to the end of his or her work. Finally, to attain focus, a craftsman must have the passion and patience to execute the detailed work to be done and possess the ability to focus on that work.
At first blush, it appears as though any one of us could have the ability to achieve those two basic traits – excellence and focus –but let’s delve deeper into the implications inherent within craftsmanship and how it translates from physical work to “knowledge work.”
Let’s start with “Excellence.” One of my favorite sayings is “success is measured by expectations.” Understanding quality in a physical, durable good is often fairly straightforward – it works, doesn’t break down, etc. Yet there is another component to quality in a physical good and its associated feature function – whether or not it meets the expectations of the customer who purchases it. It could work as designed with no internal defects, but, if it doesn’t “do” what the customer expects, it is not likely to be considered to be high quality. True quality, then, is the combination of reliable function in conjunction with the satisfaction of the customer’s expectations.
Excellence, however, seems to go beyond merely meeting the stated expectations. Hamer performed much work on the action of my piano that seemed to conform to his own “bar” of excellence. He polished the action metal and the 88 steel screws holding the dampers and hammers in place. He polished the bolts affixing the strings to the sound board, taking care of additional aesthetic qualities that actually make me want to leave the piano cover off, making it visible to all.
Unfortunately, he said, leaving it open “would only make the piano dirty again.” These unstated attributes of quality, when added to the product output, have the ability to give customers an added thrill. We like shiny, slick, polished, integrated, easy and free flowing products. It’s that kind of detail that moves quality to excellence and was on clear display in Hamer’s work.
I asked Hamer how he had learned to do the detailed and intricate repair work with such a variety of available pianos, form factors, etc. He had a simple answer… “I was an apprentice.” An old world concept, but one I found intriguing. We tend to use the word “mentor” now and, though it doesn’t mean quite the same thing, it is at least analogous to the concept of master/apprentice. Many of us can point to individuals who have ‘helped’ us throughout our career, but apprenticeship implies more than informal advice, it’s a structured training program teaching the specifics of a craft and how to achieve not only quality, but excellence. I wonder how many of you have had the luxury of receiving real, structured training vs. the reactive knowledge gained in a ‘sink or swim’ environment?
In Charles Duhigg’s recent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business1, he states that, “left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit,” which includes our business behaviors as well. If your early business experiences were like mine, in the absence of knowing the exact way to do something well, you were left to learn a way, any way at all, to accomplish your tasks. According to Duhigg, as you were figuring out how to develop a product, your brain was searching for ways to make the initial path you chose into a habit and, “once that habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.”  In other words, we stop thinking about how we do something and we just do it.
Yet what happens when the habit that we’ve formed through experience – without conscious knowledge of “excellence” within our company and without a “master” to tweak our approaches and shape them – isn’t really the best way to get something done? Moreover, what happens when we have an innovation or development organization with hundreds of employees, all of whom have been in the same sink or swim environment and have formed their own habits by either learning to “swim” or receiving just enough advice from other “swimmers”? How many approaches to quality does a company like that have? Well…they have hundreds and, if you’re not achieving excellence, you have hundreds of approaches (habits) that need to be identified, analyzed and retrained – a daunting task to be sure.
In order to achieve consistent, excellent outcomes we need to foster the mastery of the processes that create excellence within our resources. We also need a clear picture of both our customer’s base expectations of quality and the latent expectations to which they may never give voice. Our processes/habits need to be clearly identified and repeatable to a point where all involved are consistently performing each task during which we gather expectations. We cannot rely on people to each have their own way of executing. Good people have bad days. The company can then start creating an organizational habit around knowing the right way to create excellence and instilling it into those involved in delivering its products.
Quality execution then becomes a habit, allowing our most creative people to move away from the consequences of poor quality (defects, rework, phone calls to clarify intentions, upset customers, etc.) and focus that extra bandwidth on doing something else – hopefully being creative and improving our chances of delivering “excellence.”
The second major trait of a craftsman is his/her ability to focus – spending uninterrupted time and avoiding distractions in order to complete the work within the smallest possible time window. Hamer’s work was often painstakingly slow, careful and many times repetitive, but, he kept a steady pace— working for nearly 12 hours straight, with only a single break for dinner (“Eating,” he said, “just slows me down.”) In my estimation he achieved almost perfect focus. In an organization, the ability to focus provides many advantages including a dramatic increase in benefit realization, simpler resource models, increased customer satisfaction and, as you’ll see, a happier work environment (for additional information on focus, see my article in the previous issue of Visions.)
The concept of speed is often misinterpreted. The intent of focus isn’t to speed up the work. On the contrary, Hamer did not hurry. He simply dedicated the amount of time necessary to do the right amount of work. I don’t think he actually knew how long it would take him to finish, he simply started. During his time in my house, he worked diligently, with patience, attention to detail and remarkably few breaks. Do we do the same in product development or are we constantly managing “slices” of a person’s allocation? Do we work at a constant pace or do we typically meet only once or twice a week, stopping and restarting each time? To accomplish focus, you need the commitment to continue the work until it is complete, as Hamer did. Do you see such an attitude in your company?
Distractions play a major role in our work environments and, while Hamer was in an environment where distractions abound (kids, dogs, grandparents, etc.), he never stopped working, even as he spoke with me. In knowledge work, distractions take the form of competing priorities, along with instant messaging, cellphones, the internet or even a colleague who just wants to talk. Many organizations actually promote a lack of focus. Have you ever listed, posted for or read a job description that contains the following: “the candidate must be able to focus on multiple, independent initiatives with very little supervision…?” What reaction would you get to a posting that, instead, stated “…must have singular focus on important initiatives and work steadily until completion…?” It’s a different message and, potentially, a different skillset.
Yet what happens when we achieve focus? I was happy with Hamer because he finished the piano restoration quickly. But what about Hamer himself? Does focus have an effect on his attitude as well? In her article “The Power of Small Wins,” Teresa Amabile discusses what motivates employees who do knowledge work. According to Amabile, “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”  Focus, I believe, in conjunction with a clear understanding of the work to be done, is a very effective way to make progress, creating an environment with a high level of morale.
Upon completion of the restoration of our piano, Hamer appeared to be extremely satisfied with his work. How do I know? I did not need to ask him, I simply listened as he gave us an impromptu 40 minute concert, lost in his music, flowing easily from one piece to the next, testing each note, its tone, balance, each and every key, octave and its associated sound. By the end, my mother-in-law, also an accomplished pianist, was in tears, my wife and I were in awe and my rather rambunctious children were unnaturally still and quiet. Indeed, my kids could appreciate the excellence of Hamer’s work without even knowing the meaning of the word “excellence.” That, I would humbly submit, is true craftsmanship. Can we, as innovators accomplish the same? Perhaps not everyone, but with a clearer, singular knowledge of the necessary work, stronger master/apprentice pairings and a focused environment, I certainly believe more are capable of achieving it. If you need any advice, I can get you the phone number of a certain piano restoration expert I know…
 Duhigg, Charles, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” The Random House Publishing Group, USA, 2012.
 Amabile, Teresa, Kramer, Steve, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May, 2011.