In Pursuit of Elegance

Last month I read In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and am finally posting my thoughts on this book by Matthew May.

First of all, it’s a well-written book that applies its message to itself.

I’m glad that I found it after my previous read, since it covers similar ground in places as does Subject To Change but ends up exploring different vistas, too. As a matter of fact, I can relate the contents of this book to several previous reads, and In Pursuit of Elegance has refined my thinking drawn from past reading through deeper correlation and, well, elegance.

“To find elegance, you must appreciate, embrace, and then travel beyond complexity.” The pursuit of elegance is more like chess than checkers. Elegance is “far side,” not “near side,” simplicity; it is at once symmetrical, seductive, subtractive and sustainable.

Concerning this book’s refining effect, take the somewhat popular subject of kaizen–a principle and a practice of “change for the better.” A student of kaizen creates a standard, follows it, and finds a better way. A student of kaizen understands that there are two types of work: value-adding and non-value-adding. In the pursuit of value-adding work, one must be wary of muri (overload), mura (inconsistency), and muda (waste).

Up to this point, I focused more on muda (waste) as a concern, drawing from lessons learned in The Machine That Changed the World while contemplating software factories. However, May writes: “Muda is the easiest to target because it is generally more visible. But muri and mura are often the more evil of the sins, as they can be the actual cause of all muda.” Yes, of course!

Taiichi Ohno, Toyota engineering pioneer and the man behind kaizen, taught his colleagues that new thoughts and better ideas do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process. [Aside: Developing and applying empathy is an important theme in Subject To Change.] Writes May: “By requiring keen observation before action, by demanding that one look beyond the obvious surface symptoms to better see the deeper causes, by never giving answers and only asking questions, Ohno taught people to stop and think.”

Make decisions that are based on observation, not assumption (or necessarily inference alone). Therefore, actively form your mental model through firsthand observation (empathy) to ask “What is possible?;” don’t passively succumb to the “ladder of inference” and prematurely ask “What should be done?”