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How good are the parts the world doesn’t see?

Jan 29, 2012 Success, Sunday Nation

Looking at Apple’s fourth-quarter 2011 results is enough to boggle the mind. Which company do you know that grows its revenues at more than 70%; that sells a million (expensive) iPhones every three days; that sells more phones every day than there are babies born in the world; and that is currently worth more than two Wal-Marts?

Having created this gravity-defying money machine, Founder Steve Jobs will surely become the most studied CEO in history; but I sometimes wonder whether this is a productive exercise. He was one of life’s one-offs: a maverick; an iconoclast; a near-pathological control freak. Who is going to repeat that combination?

Nevertheless there are things he believed in that should make us all sit up and pay attention. I found one such belief in his biography, written by Walter Isaacson. Here it is:

“From his father Steve Jobs learned that a hallmark of passionate craftsmanship is making sure that even the aspects that will remain hidden are done beautifully…”I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though no one’s going to see it…you’ll know it’s there…for you to sleep well at night…the quality has to be carried all the way through.””

I’m clapping. Are you? No shoddy quality, even for the invisible parts? Why? Because YOU WILL KNOW it’s shoddy at the back. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is called having a personal standard. It matters not a jot whether people will EVER see your standard; the point is, you have to maintain it. For yourself, and your own peace of mind.

Steve Jobs was famous for wanting even the inner circuit boards in his Macintosh computers to not just work well, but look good. Why, when no one would ever see them in there? Because HE would know they weren’t right, and HE would feel he had let himself down.

Now look around you. Who on earth lives up to this principle? Pretty much no one. Take a look at big buildings in Nairobi. Most of them will have a very shoddy rear wall – often even unpainted. The reception may look nice, but walk down to the basement car parking: unfinished floors, unpainted walls.

Big Nairobi hotels have flamboyant common areas, but you don’t ever want to visit most inner working areas and staff quarters, where guests are not allowed to venture. You would be shocked by most of what you see. Only the very best hotels care about the staff areas.

Most people, simply put, cannot live up to the principle of “quality all the way through.” They are just putting up a facade, a shopfront, an illusion of grandeur and nobility. The minute something is not seen by others, it is neglected and abused.

A caveat: even Steve Jobs’ Apple doesn’t live up to this total-quality ideal fully. Its products exude sophistication, inside and out; but its supply-chain practices do not. Manufacturing is outsourced to China, and there are well-documented examples of egregious working conditions in its partner companies. To its credit, Apple is cracking down using a strict supplier code, but there is some way to go.

Nonetheless: please apply the “back of the cabinet” principle to your life and your organization. The visible parts may have a nice sheen to them. What about the invisible ones? How much quality and nobility is there in the bits the world doesn’t see? True greatness lies in being the same throughout. It is a standard few of us can live up to. So go and examine the backs of the cabinets of your life today, and think about what you really stand for.

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