He emerged from the metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
That’s how a very intriguing article in the Washington Post began. It has nothing to do with manufacturing or even business, but the premise got me to thinking. The article is quite lengthy, but scintillating and well worth the read. But I know most of you have about thirty seconds to get through this entire post, so here’s the brief summary:
The author wanted to know if people could recognize quality and talent. To do this he enlisted the help of one of the best violinists in the world, Joshua Bell. Mr. Bell, who can command approximately $1,000 per minute for performances, agreed to perform incognito in the subway station, playing his $3.5 million 300 year-old Stradivari.
The people waiting in the [subway] line would get a lucky break — a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world’s most famous musicians — but only if they were of a mind to take note. Bell decided to begin with "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect." Bell didn’t say it, but Bach’s "Chaconne" is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed.
The article continues with speculation about what would happen, then a blow-by-blow analysis of what really did happen.
Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music.
Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
The rest of the article is primarily interviews with some of the passersby, including a total of one that recognized Mr. Bell. And the requisite philosophical discussion. So if no one notices, then what is beauty? What is talent? What is quality?
It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)? We’ll go with Kant, because he’s obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.
I like to believe that I can recognize manufacturing and business excellence. But like most people I do so within a frame, a context built around known and studied examples and methods. I see excellence when I see very little waste, very little inventory, an effective 5S program, quick changeover, u-shaped cells, output matched to demand, and high quality. In effect I see excellence through the eyes of Shingo and Ohno.
But after thinking about Joshua Bell I wonder what I’m missing. Am I walking right by an example of world class excellence every day without knowing it?
I know of several companies that have developed home-grown excellence without knowing it. Many of them don’t actively promote their improvements; they simply continue to successfully compete. One that comes to mind is Texas Nameplate, and several of you may remember Dale Crownover’s presentation at the last AME annual conference. It was inspiring because they identified a need to improve, and they did it… without the constraints or boundaries of traditional methodologies.
So as much as we revere the greats of lean manufacturing and six sigma, let’s keep our eyes and minds open to excellence that may appear where least expected.