I’m often asked the question: What are the enemies of elegance?
Many people think the answers boil down to “complexity,” but that’s not quite right. When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said generations ago that “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity,” he meant that to find elegance, which is that “far side simplicity,” you must appreciate, confront, embrace and then travel beyond complexity.
Chasing elegance is like playing chess. Chess players understand the nature of complexity—that it is part of the game, and it’s why they play it. The challenge and thrill lies in the endless search for ways to manage and exploit those complexities. Complexity isn’t the enemy—without it they’d be playing the more simplistic game of checkers.
Similarly, elegance requires the existence of complexity. In much the same way light requires darkness and trust requires uncertainty, without complexity there is no need to talk about elegance.
No, the enemy of elegance—and there is only one—is excess.
My years with Toyota taught me that excess is a nefarious and sneaky foe that comes cloaked in three major forms, the Japanese words for which are muri, mura and muda. Muri means overload, which limits productivity, functionality and effectiveness. Mura means inconsistency, which destroys reliability and predictability. Muda means waste, which consumes valuable resources without adding value. These three are the contribution to the practice of kaizen—continuous improvement—by Taiichi Ohno, the founding manufacturing engineer of the Toyota Production System.
Muri, mura and muda hold a special place in the heart of any well-trained kaizen practitioner. They are the three M’s of inelegance. They come in several flavors.
- stress, strain
- force, push
- overprocessing, overdesign, redundancy
- unnecessary motion
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. Why do I say excess (in all its various disguises) is nefarious? Because it can quite easily sneak up on you and trap you, if you let it.
For example, last year in an OPEN Forum interview with Guy Kawasaki for my book In Pursuit of Elegance, I went on record as saying Twitter was a great example of an elegance. Nearly a year and a half later, I find myself wanting to retract my claim. Without getting specific, the many changes to the site during the intervening period have culminated in “the new Twitter,” which, for me personally, seems to have succumb to the all-too-human tendency hardwired into each of us: adding stuff.
This much I know: the laws under which elegance can be achieved are subtractive. But if restraint and subtraction don’t come naturally, and we are by nature prone to add, what is the most effective way to fight the enemy of elegance?
Perhaps it’s as easy, and as hard, as keeping foremost in our mind the observation by aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, that “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
And there is always something left to take away.
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.