Wabi-sabi: the appreciation of long service

It’s called wabi-sabi, and it’s the appreciation of long service as reflected in evidence of wear and tear.

By Paul Studebaker, editor in chief

Had enough of kanban, Kaizen and poka-yoke? I recently realized that I and many Plant Services readers unknowingly, sometimes unwillingly, have been practicing yet another of those Japanese concepts we’re so good at turning into buzzwords. It’s called wabi-sabi, and it’s the appreciation of long service as reflected in evidence of wear and tear.

“It reveres authenticity above all,” says Robyn Griggs Lawrence in her recently published book, The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty. “It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather and loving use leave behind,” she says. “Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.”

For example, I thought my car was just getting old. At 14 years and 200,000 miles, it’s using a little oil, obviously rusty and the interior, well, it’s definitely lost that new-car smell. I was thinking how silly it was of me to put in new transmission bearings, a pan gasket and rear main seal, all of which it needed (and while I was in there, a clutch that it didn’t). I should just scrap it and get something younger.

But now I realize hey, it’s cool, it’s chic, it’s wabi-sabi! (Do you think I can get that on a bumper sticker?) So I’m keeping it.

Wabi is taken to mean simple, not materialistic, humble by choice. Sabi means “the bloom of time,” and over the years, its connotation has evolved from an ancient definition of “to be desolate” to a more neutral “to grow old.”

Wabi-sabi is traced back to 16th century Japan, when Tea Master Sen no Rikyu rejected the practice of tea ceremonies so ostentatious, exclusive and complex that only the most privileged few were able to participate. Rikyu brought the ceremonies to the masses by building tea rooms like farmers’ huts with rough mud walls, thatched roofs and misshapen exposed-wood structural elements. He made it an art to use hand-hewn cups and pots and tea bowls, and utensils shaped from unlacquered bamboo.

Today in the West, the expression is trendy among home decorators who suggest, in the classic Martha Stewart manner, that you search out good, old stuff and spread it around your house, then clear your mind, sit down and wallow in it while you sip green tea, preferably with a humbly-clothed stranger you’ve invited in to share your stylish and infinite largesse.

But I think wabi-sabi has a valuable meaning to plant maintenance professionals. Who doesn’t have at least one fine, old piece of equipment that’s been doing its job well for a long time, and shows the wear and tear to prove it? A machine with the paint worn off from decades of service sessions and adjustments, whose bolts have shiny threads from repeated overhauls and bearings that are both a little loose and polished to a mirror finish from good, hard use.

It’s easy to be jealous of greenfield plants with the latest machinery, all-new tools and ostentatious, exclusive, complex condition-monitoring systems. If you worked in a plant like that, it would likely be years before you’d be crawling around and under some oily, corroded beast, yanking its mechanical bowels out for the umpteenth time to get it back into faithful service.

Your facility may seem more like a 16th century Japanese farmer’s hut, with antiquated production equipment, timber trusses and boarded-up windows. If so, you might find comfort and inspiration by seeing it not for what it lacks, but as the natural result of what it is and all the good it’s done over the years.

Assets can’t acquire that wabi-sabi patina without care and maintenance. Wabi-sabi doesn’t embrace leaks, dirt, unsuitable design or poor performance. If an object is not bringing peace of mind and functioning appropriately, it doesn’t belong in a wabi-sabi plant -- fix it, clean it or get it out of there and replace it with something that does.

But if all that’s wrong is it’s old, and especially if it has done well for many years, appreciate it for what it is. Let it remind you of good times you’ve had together, and think about how nice it feels to have it around. Wabi-sabi says all things are impermanent, incomplete and imperfect. As long as they’re working for you, that can be OK.
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