Early in my career, I was invited to a locomotive factory in the outskirts of Chicago. A huge plant, not for overhaul and repair but for manufacturing engine blocks from scratch. I was there to conduct a visual site assessment and map out next steps for the company’s journey to visual excellence. It entailed lots of walking about and lots of meetings. At the particular moment relevant to this series on beauty in the workplace, I was rushing across the site’s immense production environment—and saw something that stopped me in my tracks: a brand spanking new engine block—cylinders and all—was floating, gleaming bright, across the factory floor. I was dumbstruck, awestruck by the perfection of the thing. It shone, lit from within. And I realized, somehow, that what I was seeing was human thought—human thought made manifest. Available, useful, flawless. I was deeply moved.
Tears came, easily. The sense of revelation was overwhelming: 72 tons of human thought, airborne on an immense crane, moving across the floor from Final Assembly to the Dock Door (which, way back then, was primitively at the exact opposite end of the site). Standing there, slack jawed, I got it, perhaps for the first time in my life. At the heart of all manufacturing was the thinking mind—we humans sorting out the interface between society’s civilizing journey and the things we cause that populate it. We produce platforms of progress to allow us to go further and learn.
And what is it we learn? We learn to see the beauty in our lives and the power of that beauty to inspire, inform, nourish, and satisfy. At its essence, all manufacturing is this: the beauty of human thought. Service industries reflect this as well; but, for me, because that form is slightly less tangible than hard core manufacturing, I have to look further and harder to find the beautiful thought essence. But that’s just me, a manufacturing groupie, body and soul.
Look for the beauty that IS your work. Look on your contribution in a context of enabling human thought to extend and support your life and ours. That machine, those bolts, that avionic subassembly. That catheter you are in the process of assembling is, in and of itself, a manifestation of something that does not physically exist, that has no mass—the mind. Yet it is the reason the catheter has come forth. For sure, that stent catheter will save lives, a huge contribution of which your work is a part. But right now, I invite you to think in reverse and imagine the moment in time when the idea of stent catheters entered the societal mind. A single inventor perhaps, or a team, working meticulously for a breakthrough in technology. What beauty that is, dazzling, awesome, humbling. The thinking mind, human thought, is part of every workplace—and to share in it we have only to notice it.
Make your way towards this. If you are an executive, decide to resource the use of the walls in your company to communicate beauty and connectivity. Go to Uponor in Minneapolis and see the halls speak, contributing to the corporate intent and touching the hearts and minds of all who walk them. If you are an associate, bring beauty into your work area—your pot of lilies, your Chiquita stickers. You may have to ask permission and HR may need to turn itself into a small pretzel—but a YES can come easily in this day and age when employee engagement and empowerment are so rightly prized. Use that for the purpose of beauty and help your company move forward.
Manager? Supervisor? Don’t just talk to your direct reports about the corporate mission and vision. Show them in images and words. Make them tangible. Invite your team to collect samples of their own and share them monthly and meaningfully. Cultivate and extend the beauty of human thought. Let the workplace speak.