Tea and the art of quality: Tom Peters On excellence

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The Independent Online
I LOST a recent Sunday, professionally speaking. Friday and Saturday had brought a foot and a half of snow to my southern Vermont farm. Then Sunday dawned cloudless, with the temperature well below zero.

The day had been planned to a T. To prepare for a speech the next week, I'd pore over hundreds of pages of material on telecommunications. But when I went to get the newspaper, I realised it was one of the most beautiful days I'd ever seen. Maybe, I mused, never to be matched again.

What a spectacle] Each window in the house offered a magical crystalline pattern of frost. A stiff breeze generated kaleidoscopic whorls on the white-blanketed fields.

So I seized the day, and enjoyed it for all it was worth. I stared. I sniffed. I listened. I absorbed.

But it turns out I did some work anyway. The experience of fully inhaling a day got me thinking about quality. It also led me to my dog-eared copy of Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea. Thumbing through it, I came upon a satisfactory answer to a question I've long pondered: Just what is quality?

The serious study of tea service, or chado, in Japan is a lifetime occupation, calling for great discipline and total concentration. A million details must be mastered. But there is much more. Consider the cleanliness of the tea room and its surroundings. 'One of the first requisites of a tea master,' writes Okakura, 'is the knowledge of how to sweep, clean and wash.' He offers the example of the ancient tea master, Rikyu, teaching his son how to prepare the garden path at the entranceway to the tea room.

'Not clean enough,' said Rikyu, when Sho-an had finished his task, and bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikyu: 'Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time . . . not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground.' 'Young fool,' chided the tea master, 'that is not the way a garden path should be swept.' Saying this, Rikyu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn]

What Rikyu demanded, Okakura concludes, 'was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.'

That makes sense to me, if you're Siemens AG providing telephone equipment or Rosenbluth International offering travel services.

In fact, Rosenbluth CEO Hal Rosenbluth would be the first to agree with Okakura. For one thing, he regularly invites new staff from around the country to headquarters in Philadelphia and personally serves them high tea. It's a way of modelling the company's signature 'elegant service'.

Rosenbluth understands TQM, SPC and all the quality buzzwords. And heaven knows, his company has a technology fetish; its proprietary software has fuelled the giant company's meteoric growth. Yet he also understands that by-the-numbers quality is far from sufficient for success. The charts and terminology omit entirely the need to shake the tree and scatter scraps of the autumn brocade.

In fact, the role of the leaf in Okakura's saga is wonderfully paradoxical. The master, recall, doesn't fault his son for sweeping up every last leaf. He does berate him for not adding the inspired touch of beauty that comes from naturally scattered leaves, shaken just so from the tree.

Think of the scattering of leaves as the human dimension, the art, the elegance that Hal Rosenbluth seeks - and the missing element in most products and services.

Consumers of haircuts and paper clips, of aircraft engines and biotech drugs, appreciate exceptionally clean paths, consistent and exact engine fittings and unadulterated drug capsules. But we equally appreciate beauty and art in all those items.

Truth is, I go well out of my way to get my haircut. Sometimes my barber, in Woodside, California, asks, 'So, what are you back from Vermont for?' 'To get my hair cut,' I reply. I'm not entirely kidding.

The haircuts are superb, no question about it. (The path is swept clean). But, hey, the place and the person are special. Hal Rosenbluth and tea master Rikyu would understand.

I'm glad I took the time to appreciate that magical winter Sunday. Too often I've let such opportunities slip away. The funny thing is, that day of pure, unadulterated 'leisure' added more to my speech than a dozen more hours of technical reading. (I did the reading later, anyway. Clean paths and all that).

Well-groomed SPC charts and thoughtful TQM programmes have boosted American competitiveness. But as the marketplace gets more and more crowded, we need to pay special attention to shaking the tree and scattering over the (clean) garden the scraps of the brocade of autumn.

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