You can see it in the eyes.

It was his eyes that I noticed first. Totally focused. Intent. Piercing.

No, I’m not talking about the guy I sat next to on the plane yesterday. I’m talking about a worker attaching handles to mugs at the Heath Ceramics factory.

Heath Ceramics is one of the few remaining mid-century American potteries still in existence in the U.S. They’ve been making tableware and tile for over fifty years in their factory in Sausalito, CA. They employ a crew of 60 people and make every product right on the premesis.

I was on a factory tour of Heath last week when I saw the guy attaching mug handles. As I said, his eyes told the story of how deeply he was concentrating on his task. The company has exacting standards for everything they produce, and the attachment between handle and mug body is one of the most critical — and difficult — joins in ceramic tableware. (It has to be strong and look seamless at the same time. Not an easy trick in a fully manual operation.)

The guy attaching handles was the living definition of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” the feeling of energized focus and positive feelings that come from being fully immersed in what you’re doing.

It’s also the polar opposite of what you see everyday in offices around the country.

I mean, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer. On the one hand, the guy attaching handles, totally focused on his job, clearly energized by the work he was doing. On the other hand, tens of millions of office workers frustrated, stressed, and demotivated by their work.

You could argue pretty persuasively that some of the difference is due to the nature of the work. In his book Shopcraft as Soulcraft (and his shorter essay here), Matthew Crawford argues that “manual competence” — the ability to make and fix things with your own hands like fixing a carburetor or attaching a mug handle — is in many ways intrinsically more rewarding than pasting formulas into a spreadsheet or assembling a marketing plan.

But I think there’s more to it than simply working with something physical. Stephen King doesn’t make things with his hands like Matt Crawford, but I bet that he feels as energized and rewarded when he writes. (Or at least after he’s done writing.) Ditto Judith Jamison, the director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, when she choreographs a dance. Or Merly Streep, when she’s preparing for a role. And probably the same is true for you, when you’ve had a chance to really immerse yourself in a “knowledge work” project, whether that’s coordinating logistics for a shipment of goods or analyzing the latest public health data on teen pregnancy. So the work doesn’t have to be manual to be intensly rewarding and to bring you to Csikszentmihalyi’s state of “flow.”

But you do need an environment that allows for flow. As I’ve written about before (here, here, and here), constant interruptions (both self-imposed and externally inflicted) prohibit that. Unrealistic or impossible deadlines that take no account of managerial production capacity prohibit the attainment of flow as well. In fact, the social and physical work environment for most of us white-collar types stack the deck against us, and pretty much guarantee that we’ll never get there during regular work hours. You’ll have better luck late at night and on weekends, which is why you see so many people working then. (“It’s the only time I can actually get anything done!”)

I think that lean principles can help create this environment. By implementing 5S and by standardizing the stuff that can be standardized, we can improve the (fortuitously named) “flow” of our work. With root cause problem solving we can reduce or eliminate the interruptions that keep us from creating flow — for us and for our customers.

With lean, we can get those same eyes that the craftsman at Heath Ceramics has. The alternative is more of the same stress, anxiety, and lack of productivity that sucks the soul out of your work.

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