Innovation, Quality and Beauty

by John Persico

Innovation, Quality and BeautyAn Interview with Antonio Stradivari

Imagine building something almost entirely out of wood and glue. Your employees work on it for several months and you add the finishing touches. You sell it and go on to build several more models. Each model is hand made using primitive woodworking tools. The purpose of each product is to produce musical notes. You might be building a lute, cello or a harp, but you happen to prefer building violins since there is a stronger customer demand for them. However, you are not just building any violin, you are building a Stradivarius. Today, your creation will sell for hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars. Amazingly, their value does not lie in strictly the “antiqueness” or celebrity association such as we often see with many expensive products. No! The value lies in your products ability to produce notes that have never been duplicated. Even modern science and technology have not been able to duplicate the sound from a Stradivarius violin.

So what can a Stradivarius tell us about innovation and quality? Are there lessons that either the man or the machine can teach American industry? I decided to try to answer this question by interviewing Mr. Antonio Stradivari (1634 – 1737) himself. Please journey with me to Mr. Stradivari’s workshop in Cremona, Italy where he has graciously consented to give us a few minutes of his very valuable time.

John: Thank you Antonio for taking the time with us today. My first question is simply what makes your violins so good?

Strad: Well, we have combined the idea of art and science to make our products. In addition, they must be beautiful.

John: Can you give us more detail here?

Strad: Well, there are nine key principles that I try to instill in my workforce. They are as follows:

  1. Trial and error. Everything depends on experimentation. We never stop experimenting and our products keep getting better and better.
  2. Nothing is ever good enough. We must continually refine and perfect our product because the Amatis and Guarneris families are constantly making theirs better.
  3. Always use the finest possible inputs to build our products.
  4. We continually capture the best processes by rigorously defining the methods that lead to the highest possible quality. We have a few dozen employees and it is necessary to have well defined processes so that they can be consistent in their work. Of course, we change these with every improvement.
  5. Be the best. Have great role models. My role models were Michelangelo, Bernini and of course Leonardo Da Vinci. Not one thing that they ever produced was mediocre or lackluster. They strived to produce the best that the world had ever seen.
  6. Strive for perfection. We can never achieve perfection, but we can make it the Holy Grail that we continually seek. Being the best is not perfection. Perfection is unattainable but it is a truly important goal.
  7. Meld science and art. As I mentioned, art and form and function are all related. There must be no tradeoffs or compromises since they are one and the same.
  8. Love what you do. I tell my workers that they must combine passion with purpose in their lives. Our customers deserve the best they can produce. You must love your products or find other work that more suits you.
  9. Create beauty. Many people create great products but they are not beautiful. We want our products to combine function with beauty.

John: Can you say more about this principle of beauty you mention?

Strad: Yes, functionality is important but it is a commodity. Quality has eight dimensions and aesthetics is one of them. We believe beauty is a better word than aesthetics because it is more evocative of what we want to achieve with our products. Beauty and harmony are synonymous. Beauty is a symmetry that leaves us breathless. Variability is ugly and must be eliminated but beauty and function can co-exist. Beauty is perfection when it does what it is supposed to do, no more and no less. But beauty is not about doing. It is about being.
There are those who say that beauty is as beauty does, but they confuse form with function. Beauty is ethereal. Your Miss America is beautiful not because she is expected to do anything. A baby and an Irish Setter are also both beautiful and we do not judge them by their functions as much as by their being. Great works of art do not have a function. Beauty in form is an aesthetic. It is recognition of being “perfect” just as it is. Beauty cannot be measured or judged by science. Different people may have different opinions of what is beautiful but true beauty is almost always universally admired.

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John: So you are saying that beauty and function can go together in any products?

Strad: Why not?

John: Well, a few weeks ago I went to visit a company that made fire hydrants. I was surprised at the technology that went into these pumps and the time that it took to mold, cast and paint each pump. However, I do not think the manufacturer thought of beauty as one of the product characteristics.

Strad: Perhaps that is really what is wrong with American products today. You are leaving out the beauty and passion that needs to go into each product. All of the other product characteristics that you compete on quickly become commodities. You cannot compete on price or function as these can be copied very quickly. Even innovation is a difficult thing to compete on since innovations are rapidly copied. But beauty combined with function can never be copied and will always have a value that far exceeds the labor put into it.

John: Well, I guess that about sums up my questions. We want to thank you for sharing your ideas with us today. Perhaps those who will read this interview will be able to take some of your ideas and put them into practice

Strad: You are very welcome. I wish your country great luck. You live in a time with a great deal of competition and that is a very good thing for your customers.

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John PersicoDr. John Persico is a partner with Ms. Peg Peck-Chapman in the Minnesota Consulting Alliance. Dr. Persico has been in management consulting since 1986. He has worked with organizations in both the profit and non-profit sector.

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  1. I think we cannot follow this model in today’s times.

    Anything that is material ( whether it is a piece of clothing or a piece of furniture or a razor / soap / toothbrush / … ) is supposed to be functional ; if it is fully functional , dependable and has no adverse side effects , why would any of us not buy it ? It all comes down to value for money ; can we really get beauty without any added cost ? How many of us will be willing to pay the extra price for beauty ?

    Beauty is not really symmetry ; a perfectly symmetrical face would look pretty ordinary , and somewhat strange.

    It is difficult to say whether the perfect sound of the Stradivarius violins is in any way related to the beauty of the violins , or the emphasis on beauty by the workers.

    It may have been simple to either find 50 workers who could create violins under the tutelage of Stradivarius , or train 50 workers in his principles ; can we do the same with today’s workforce of 5,000 or 50,000 ?

    If we agree that innovation is from trial and error , do we have the time or the money to engage in a process of trial and error ? With this , can the final product be priced attractively enough ? How much has Coke changed in the hundred years since it was invented ? Where do we innovate ? Most of today’s R & D effort is towards finding the next great thing , not any incremental change , so for the production process to innovate by trial and error is too simplistic.

  2. Narayan, Good Points. I don’t agree with them but you make some interesting counter arguments. I think it might all depend on how expansive one’s vision is. I think we can train 100,000 even a million to work with these principles. John

  3. Then you’ll know which is right for you.

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