This week, recovered from illness and feeling cabin fever, Bernadette and I went out to Like-Like Drive-Inn. I always order either the mahi sandwich or the fry-rice. Bernadette gets something different every time. Like-Like has been around forever. As a teenager my first wife Marilyn went there with dates after bowling. When we went there on my first trip to Hawaii in 1978 she found it unchanged and was quite happy about that. It has changed since, but not much. The menu was was redone, and the fry-rice became fried rice, and the decor was changed to late Howard Johnson, but the people are nice and the clientele is local-local and I consider it a privilege to be welcome there.
When Bernadette and I eat out, especially in non-chain restaurants, her food service background and intense curiosity about everything always leads to a discussion of restaurants, their menus, their service, their ethos, and their business. We talked about Liliha Bakery, another place that has been around forever, but there is something important that is different about Liliha Bakery. Like-Like Drive-Inn is still owned by the same family. Liliha was sold, but the new ownership was smart enough to keep everything the same.
This is really unusual. New owners like to mark their territory. They nearly always persuade themselves that they can "improve" a place, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Liliha Bakery started out as a good bakery in a good location with almost enough parking even for busy nights; over the years it became more. As similar establishments closed or changed, Liliha, by staying the same, became more than an establishment. It became an experience. It's still a very good bakery, and I speak as someone who is not quite as enthusiastic about Cocoa-Puffs as some others - I'm more of a cinnamon twist guy - but it's also a piece of Old Hawaii, and the day the management forgets that is the day they start to go downhill.
There is a lesson in this, because one of the most oft-repeated mantras in business is, "Embrace change." It is, in my view, a perilous mantra, missing the point it means to make.
A business can die from refusing to change - we've all see it happen - but a business can also die from changing in the wrong direction, and from changing when it should have held the line. Countrywide Financial embraced change. Enron was a change agent. Montgomery Ward was too late to change and then made the wrong changes.
Do you know the Serenity Prayer? You do, even if you didn't know its name: it's the one about being able to change what can be changed, and accept what cannot be changed, and having the wisdom to know the difference. The correct attitude for business is to embrace change when change is good, hold the line when it is wrong, and develop the judgment to tell the difference.
I actually think developing good judgment is not the hardest part. The hardest part is that most people feel more comfortable with changing or not changing, one or the other; regardless of which sort of person you are, one option will always feel good, the other will be less comfortable, and from one circumstance to the next the right course could be either one.
A willingness to embrace change, like the instinct to defend tradition, is no substitute for thought.