Thursday, 10 April 2014

Smiles are a valid goal

I was on the shop floor yesterday visiting a large project with the company's CEO and the project team were smiling. They had just had a visit from their customer to review progress, and the customer had a smile for them as well (this might explain that). The CEO smiled back. Hell, I smiled.

As a young man, I had to go all the way to Africa to learn how to smile. There is an inherent contradiction between strength and warmth: the stronger you are, the colder you appear. The warmer you are, the weaker you seem. I was young, and making such efforts to seem strong. But in Africa, people were warm first - whatever happened in their real life, I was just passing through. I discovered there a fundamental question; warm first? Or strong first?

Strong is useful, because people will both fear you and follow you, which is great to get things done (after all, that's a time-tested method). But strong is wasteful as it creates unnecessary pushback and low initiative. The trick, I've learned over the years, is to meet strength with strength and warmth with warms, kind of a postural TIT-FOR-TAT strategy for life's prisoner's dilemma.

But I'm also learning that starting with warm is less wasteful. Seeking smiles before results is not weak, it's actually much stronger. It's a valid business goal:

  1. seeking the customers' smile: that special smile of enjoying the feel or the ownership of a product, of enjoying the kindness or genuineness of a service. That brief, unguarded, true smile that flits on someone's face when something just happened just right.
  2. seeking employees' smile: no matter how hard the situation is, the shared smile of feeling self-confident enough to tackle the technical challenge and trusting enough in one's team to take on the political challenges, the simple pleasure of working well together as a team - this is a unique experience that only work can offer.
  3. seeking our own smile: when do we start being kinder to ourselves? This is not the "tick the box" grim satisfaction of actually getting something out of the job, or having beaten an opponent, but the relaxed smile of actual enjoyment, for the fun of it.
A few years ago, having lost yet another political battle, I found myself back on the shop floor with a senior exec - we had just lost the game, the program that had delivered so much progress and sizable results was being dismantled by top management, once again. But as we stood side by side at the gemba looking at people working more easily, focused, without strain, work flowing from one person to another, we smiled.

Smiles are a legitimate challenge. Imagining delivery so that customers smile. Creating work environments so that employees smile. Smiling yourself more often, to others, but to yourself as well. This is not being weak, this is a far deeper kind of strength.

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