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The insanity of high standards

Apr 03, 2016 Success, Sunday Nation

Alan Bobbe founded a restaurant in Nairobi that, in its heyday, became world-famous. His eponymous Bistro had the tagline “a corner of France in the heart of Africa”, and it offered outstanding French cuisine.

In the late 1990s, the Bistro was located at its original site on Koinange street. As my office was nearby in those days, I would sometimes pop in for a lunch treat. Alan Bobbe himself was elderly and ailing by then, but he would still be seated in a corner, in full view of patrons. He would not take part in any of the cooking or service, but he was nonetheless sitting there for a reason.

Every dish that came out of the kitchen ready to be served would not go to its designated table until it had passed through the restaurant’s founder. The waiter would take it to M. Bobbe’s table and place it before him. The old man would peer carefully at the dish, before approving it fit to be served. Most dishes would pass muster. But every once in a while a dish placed before the founder’s gaze would elicit a sharp intake of breath and an icy stare.

He would point his finger at what was wrong on the plate, and send it back to the kitchen to be redone with a wave of his hand.

I used to watch this ritual, fascinated. Here was a man clearly on his last legs, barely able to speak. But he would still haul himself to the arena of his work to ensure that standards were maintained. I understood him: he could not bear to let anything sub-par pass under his name. Not while he was still alive. Alan Bobbe passed away a few short years later.

Now read this:

“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.””

That’s from Walter Isaacson’s biography of the legendary Apple founder. I always feel like clapping when I read it. No shoddy quality, even for the invisible parts? No one will see it, but it’s still not acceptable, because you will know it’s shoddy at the back. That is called having a personal standard.

Steve Jobs took his father’s words to heart. He insisted that even the inner circuit boards in his Macintosh computers needed 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, that’s why. And he couldn’t live with that.

At some stage in our lives, most of us come across people like Bobbe and Jobs. People who have to have things just so and not any other way. People who will die in the ditch defending a standard that makes little sense to others. People who will insist that things must be done properly until their final breaths. Crazy people.

Most people are not crazy like that. Most people cut corners, relax their standards. Most people are opportunistic, and supply only the quality they can get away with, and no better. They feel nothing for the product and its standard, only for the profit they can make from it.

If you felt even a twinge of appreciation for the crazy people I have just described, please join me today in clapping for them. It is because of them that anything in this world is done properly. There are not many of them, but they exist: in our homes and families, in institutions, in our circles of friends. Because of them, we are protected from reducing our lives to an ever-descending spiral of cheap compromises and tawdry accommodations. Because of them, just good enough is not good enough, and we are set an example to aspire to. Because of them, we can sometimes consume food and gadgets and services and hospitality that are, in Jobs’ words, “insanely great.”

Do please note: being obsessive-compulsive is not what I’m talking about. Some perfections are a disorder, not a virtue. Yet somewhere around you, someone is insisting on a crazy standard today that adds value to the world. Applaud that person.

(Sunday Nation, 3 April 2016)

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