“There are times in life when if fortunate we experience a moment of utter clarity. We feel wide awake and connected and balanced: everything makes sense, we know exactly who we are, what we want and why we’re here. In that moment, be it one blink or a thousand, our effectiveness is maximized. And yet our actions seem minimal, effortless even, and the experience is consummately satisfying. These are breakthrough moments.”
So writes Matt May, the innovation author and design strategist, in his engaging new fable, The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change (Jossey-Bass, 2010). Writers have struggled with inadequate English terms like “zone” or “flow” to describe such experiences. Matt May points out that the Japanese language has a word just for this: “shibumi”. His tale is about one such series of shibumi moments.
Where do such moments occur? Matt May believes that they can occur in the most unlikely places, like the sales room of a car dealership. His book is the story of man who seems to be losing everything, crushed to pieces by an inhuman workplace. And then through a series of shibumi moments, finds deep satisfaction and redemption.
The tale concerns Andy Harmon, a sales manager in his forties, who, on page one, is abruptly fired from his job, because the firm is cutting costs and moving all the jobs out of the country. Andy wants to live in the same city with his wife and two young children, and out of desperation grabs a job as a salesman in a car dealership. There are no other jobs in town.
The car dealership is not a pleasant place to work. Andy’s boss, Grady, offers Andy a no-salary commission-only position, and treats him as just another “human resource” to be kept on if he delivers and disposed of if he doesn’t. Andy must “move the metal” or he is out. It’s as simple as that, according to Grady, who won’t listen to any of Andy’s good suggestions as to how the work might be done better or differently. It’s “shape up or ship out”.
Andy tries diligently the master the job of car salesman, and covers the basics, but he has trouble closing a sale. He seems unable to master the high-pressure tactics that are needed to induce the distrustful customers who wander into the salesroom to buy a car. Andy is too decent a person. He is frustrated, but he needs the job, and he needs to make those sales.
I won’t spoil the read for you by describing the series of shibumi moments by which Andy is eventually able to find a way through the work-maze and induce change, not only in his own life but also in the world of the car dealership. Read it for yourself!
In the process, you will get a mini-education in Japanese management thinking, including genchi genbutsu (observation); hoshin (goal alignment); kaizen (continuous improvement) and hansei (reflection) which are applied successively in "the commitment", “the preparation”, “the struggle” and “the breakthrough”.
What’s wonderful about the book is the way that it calmly and dispassionately depicts a typical American workplace, particularly the way in which the workplace is unresponsive to any effort to improve it. For some time, Andy’s "commitment," “preparation” and “struggle” appear to be getting nowhere. It is only when he gets away from the workplace and practices hansie (“reflection”) that the breakthrough occurs.
When the breakthrough does occur, we are able to see more clearly what is so terribly wrong with that car dealership, as well as with so many of the workplaces in today’s organizations: the treatment of people as things, and the lack of any genuine human connection. We also see how even this unpromising setting can be transformed if one approaches the subject in the right frame of mind. In the process, we learn how the management can be reinvented.
I was hoping to like this book, because I enjoyed Trevanian’s 1979 novel called Shibumi, as well as Matt May’s two earlier books, In Pursuit of Elegance and The Elegant Solution. (Today's workplaces could certainly do with some more elegance!) And I am happy to say that my high expectations were met.
A short book, but a profound book, The Shibumi Strategy is a wonderful contribution to the emerging thinking about why and how we must recreate today’s workplaces so that they are more productive for the organization, more satisfying to those doing the work and more responsive to the customers for whom the work is being done.
Equally important: it’s a great story!